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High ROI from Scripps students

Talk about news you can use.

A new set of observations made during a Scripps Institution of Oceanography study revealed that in spring, 2002, snow in the Sierra Nevada began melting all at once in a phenomenon researchers call "synchronous spring." This case of unusually simultaneous snowmelt contrasts with the classic spring pattern that most hydrologists associate with the Sierra in which every 100 meters of gain in elevation delays snowmelt by around four days.

Though the reasons behind synchronous spring will be debated, the implications of the finding are clear: The parts of California downstream from this mountain runoff face an increased threat of flooding in extreme cases and a large portion of the state faces a less manageable water supply.

The California Department of Water Resources thinks enough of the work to participate in the expansion of the network of streamflow, snow and weather gauges in the Sierra Nevada that the Scripps scientists are using to reach their conclusions. The lead author of the paper about the synchronous spring onset received this week the Desert Research Institute's Peter B. Wagner Memorial Award for Women in Atmospheric Sciences, which encourages the endeavors of female graduate students.

That's right. The lead author, Jessica Lundquist, is a student at Scripps.

Student researchers like Lundquist give California a substantial return on a very limited investment. It costs just over $30,000 a year in the form of fees and living expenses to support students who are California residents at Scripps. For out-of-state or foreign students, the figure approaches $40,000.

California pays only a small fraction of that $30,000 to $40,000. The exact amount of this fraction varies, usually being inversely proportionate to the lion's share that is supplied by science grant and contract funds. But the state's portion of student support has long been limited, and is shrinking when a continued investment in intellect and technology is more important to California's economy than ever. For decades, the state provided about 20 percent of Scripps' operating budget. Now it's more like 11 percent and the expectation is that state funding might fall to half that level in coming years.

Even as the state economy revives, as it inevitably will, it's not a given that support for higher education -- and especially scientific research -- will ever resemble what it was. At Scripps, the drying well is creating a paradigm shift. Even though it is a graduate department of the University of California, San Diego, a state school, Scripps must think and act like a private institution if it is to achieve future financial stability.

One can plead with state legislators to consider the damaging effects of the investment not made, of the failure to take advantage of a favorable risk/reward ratio that doesn't exist anywhere else. Reality suggests, however, that it is time for the friends -- industries and individuals -- of higher learning institutions like Scripps to take the initiative to nurture what helps create a better future for themselves. A financial investment from its beneficiaries, in forms ranging from institutional endowments to employees fully leveraging their employers' matching grants to fund student fellowships, will be returned many times over.

In the discussion of how to fund education during an unprecedented budget crisis, we can't forget that there's a potential payoff in every student in the UC system. Individuals who step up and support places like Scripps will be paid back in new medicines, new technologies, new understanding of how our planet works and maybe even in the continuation of a safe and adequate water supply. This may be a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis in the state Capitol. There is also, however, no precedent of California having profited from leaving its bounty of knowledge unharvested.

Monroe is senior science writer for UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography Explorations magazine.

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