Merrill Hall is a squat little red brick building which houses Morehouse College's chemistry department and sits at the corner the Atlanta school's original campus. In May, U.S. President Barack Obama greeted alumni (like me), students and dignitaries in its small classrooms and offices before speaking to the graduating class, but the recent presence of the most powerful politician on Earth hasn't been able to save the students who normally walk those halls from cuts of the federal budget ax and the sequester is only making things worse.
For example, the Republican fixation on cutting the federal discretionary budget is devastating the Dr. John Hopps, Jr. Defense Research Scholars Program. Named for the Morehouse alum who died in 2004 while serving as deputy undersecretary of defense for laboratories and basic sciences, the program funds financial assistance for tuition, books and travel to research conferences for students each year. These students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, conduct faculty guided research and fulfill several other academic and research criteria to maintain their awards. At the end of their academic careers at Morehouse they must apply to a graduate program in the sciences and since 2010 approximately 65 percent of the graduates have enrolled in programs in computer science, math, sociology, biology, physics or engineering. This fall 75 percent of the 2013 Hopps Scholars are beginning graduate school.
According to Dr. J.K. Haynes, dean of science and biology, the Hopps Scholar program once received $2 million from the Department of Defense each year which allowed them to award 25 scholarships to members of each incoming class. In the 2012-2013 school year funding dropped to $2 million for four years. Only nine students were admitted. This year there has been no funding and no additional students have received aid. At its height there were 100 young men in the program, enough to create a community of academic excellence. Today there are only 37 and most of them will graduate next year. To say there is great concern is a vast understatement.
The future accomplishments of the young men in this program are critical. As the president said to 500 graduating seniors in May, including 16 Hopps Scholars, "it's not just the African-American community that needs you. The country needs you. The world needs you."
He was right. The country needs to stay competitive with the rest of the world and deal with looming challenges. Scientific advancement is our best path forward. We need alternatives to fossil fuels to power our economy and stop global warming. We need more innovation in biomedical research to fight life threatening diseases. Much of our infrastructure is crumbling while the rest of the world is building high-speed rail and modern airports.
Meanwhile our high tech sector needs new people to refresh the gene pool of innovation. As Neil Ungerleider wrote in Fast Companyrecently"the technology world is missing out on a lot of innovation – and, even more importantly to the companies behind technology, missing out on potential profits." Because, he says, "the entrepreneurial class of startup creators is disproportionately male and white," and they are making apps and software for people just like them. Cutting science-based scholarships at historically black colleges doesn't help.
In the short term, companies are hopscotching around the internal shortfalls in scientific capacity by lobbying for more visas for high skilled workers. Programs like the Hopps Scholarship help equip Americans to do the research and take the jobs that will maintain our national competitiveness. Instead we are cutting our investments in the future of our country.
Maybe Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or the president can do something to fix this mess, but the sequester makes that tougher. Speaker of the House John Boehner and the Tea Party Caucus Republicans are holding the purse strings pretty tightly. When George W. Bush went to war in the Middle East he assembled what he called a "coalition of the willing." In the fight to govern our country effectively, America now needs a coalition of the rational.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and Zimmerman verdict, President Obama went to the White House briefing room and asked "how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys … is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?" Yes, Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, fund the Hopps Scholars and other programs like it.