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Elizabeth Warren pulled up to campus Monday with a sputtering vehicle—the federal government, for which she works—and got under the hood to check two key problems: its leaky research support and its broken student loan system.
On the research front, the senior senator from Massachusetts got an earful from some elite technicians: 15 medical executives, educators, and researchers, who joined her for lunch to decry declining National Institutes of Health (NIH) research funding. The Democratic senator pledged support for more federal research dollars while pushing listeners to send her their specific suggestions for using the money more wisely and for regulatory improvements.
“This is our best investment in how we build a sustainable economic future,” said Warren of the NIH, whose research, she argued, could avert or lessen the loss of billions of dollars in economic activity from Americans incapacitated by disease. The former Harvard Law School professor recounted the importance of federal research money in her own academic career: a grant started her attention-getting work on Americans bankrupted by medical bills. She also reeled off statistics about Boston’s reliance on NIH grants: $1.7 billion to area institutions in 2013, reflecting more than half of the NIH’s total allotment to Massachusetts—itself second only to California among the states in NIH funding.
Given that California dwarfs the Bay State, Warren told the attendees at One Silber Way, “we are definitely punching above our weight.” She noted that while her congressional colleagues don’t dispute medical research’s importance, the concern over deficits that infuses Washington’s budget discussions “is pummeling the NIH.”
In particular, last year’s budget sequestration clobbered medical research at BU and elsewhere. “I talk about doubling funding for the NIH,” Warren said, “but the place where now I run into a brick wall in Washington is, how are we going to pay for this?” She called for plugging tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy and corporations to find the money, a theme she reiterated during her subsequent student loan discussion with students.
The senator spent most of her time taking notes and peppering the medical representatives about their needs and problems. Several lunch-goers warned that young researchers were abandoning the field or taking jobs in more research-generous countries. “We’re really talking about a lost generation,” said Barrett Rollins, chief scientific officer of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
When Warren asked which countries were committed to research investment, there was a chorus of: “China.”
Others complained that basic research, necessary to innovation, but requiring years before leading to practical uses, is losing out to applied, “translational” research—even though “most translational work is not really that translational.…We don’t develop products,” said James Collins, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and a School of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering.
Responding to Warren’s request for specific suggestions, Gloria Waters, a BU vice president and associate provost for research, said researchers must currently fill out numerous conflict-of-interest forms for research that may never receive funding. The government could help, she said, by “just changing the timing at which those forms get filled out.”
In addition to Waters and Collins, among other BU attendees were Karen Antman, dean of the School of Medicine and Medical Campus provost; David Coleman, MED’s Wade Professor and chair of medicine; and former Boston mayor Thomas Menino (Hon.’01) and Graham Wilson, a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of political science, directors of BU’s Initiative on Cities, which sponsored Warren’s visit. Representatives of Partners Healthcare, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Boston Public Health Commission also attended.
One floor up and one hour after the luncheon, Warren met with about 100 students for what could be called her Down with Debt Tour. At BU and last weekend at Suffolk University, she laid out her plans to stop the government from, as she told her Terrier audience, “embedding huge profits in federal student loan interest rates.”
The debt created by pricey education loans “is crushing young people,” she said. Among other things, she called for allowing student borrowers to file for bankruptcy if necessary and for penalizing colleges with hefty numbers of student loan defaults. She said she’ll also introduce a bill to let borrowers with older loans, carrying interest rates of 7 percent or more, refinance their debt at the 3.86 percent rate Congress has approved for new loans.
When one student awash in debt asked Warren’s advice, the senator replied with a personal answer—start with the US Department of Education website for information on payment strategies—and a political one—get active in demanding loan changes. “Washington is overrun with lobbyists,” she said, “and the lobbyists are there to make sure the billionaires get to protect their loopholes.”
Some questioners wandered off the topic, as when a student named Dylan queried Warren about a possible presidential bid as giggles erupted and the senator beamed. Amiably, she repeated her long-standing answer:
“Dylan, I am not running for president.”