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Financial crisis looms at LSU

Louisiana scientists say the interim threat from Katrina is real and could cause further setbacks, layoffs

By | November 18, 2005

As researchers at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center continue to dig out from Hurricane Katrina, a $79 million gap in the School of Medicine's roughly $240 million annual budget poses another hurdle to recovery, putting large numbers of research jobs at risk.

"This is a crisis that needs to be addressed, and nobody seems to be paying attention to the urgent need for interim funding," exhorted Larry Hollier, dean of the medical school.

The $79 million shortfall represents income from graduate medical education and patient care activities that failed to materialize after the loss of five major teaching hospitals in New Orleans, Hollier explained. That figure does not include additional hurricane-related expenses that the medical school has incurred, he said, including relocating faculty and residents to facilities outside of the waterlogged city.

"Unless I can get some business interruption funding, either from the federal government or from the [state] Office of Risk Management or from someplace, I'm going to have to lay off very, very large numbers of staff and faculty," he warned, saying layoffs would be imminent.

Since residents and faculty care for the state's uninsured population, the immediate effect would be a "meltdown" of the state's healthcare system, added Hollier, who is also serving as acting chancellor of the LSU Health Sciences Center. He replaced John A. Rock, "who resigned to return to research, teaching and patient care," according to a LSU news release issued on Monday.

If layoffs occur, clinical faculty could be pressed to spend more time teaching and providing patient care and less time on research. Basic science could be affected as well. "There's no doubt that if the clinical departments are not being able to function in the way they were before, then it's no doubt going to affect the basic scientists to some extent," said Bronya J.B. Keats, who chairs the Department of Genetics. Basic science departments depend, to some extent, on state funding, she explained, and there's only so much of that to go around. "This time," she observed, "[the clinical departments] need more than we do."

Donald K. Scott, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry, said he worries that the fiscal crisis could undermine the institution's ability to stay competitive. "I'm worried that the infrastructure of the research enterprise is going to be compromised and that I won't be able to do as good a science as I should be able to do," Scott said. Major layoffs, he reasoned, could affect things like office personnel, animal facilities and other services that researchers depend upon.

Scott, whose lab studies the mechanisms by which glucose metabolism regulates gene expression, also said he fears a protracted delay in the institution's recovery could harm investigators' ability to secure funding. "As a friend of mine said, 'What if you're going at 70 percent for a year?' That's a huge disadvantage when you go up for renewals and when you're writing grants," he noted. Considering the circumstances, Hollier said he worries that his faculty will be recruited away. In fact, he conceded, he's already lost several to other institutions in other states.

Still, loyalty abounds in many corners of the health sciences center. "It's a very, very big uphill battle, but I'm staying here," said Nicolas G. Bazan, director of the Neuroscience Center of Excellence. "I believe in my people," he said. "That's the main reason that I stay."

To Arthur L. Haas, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, the institution's struggle to begin anew is not unlike the massive purge of his lab's main refrigerator the other day. Haas sorted through 25 years worth of samples and tossed those that were simply taking up space. "I think we can reorganize things to be a much more efficient institution than what we had before," he insisted.

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