NATIONAL REPORT — While veterinary colleges coast to coast wrestle with grim budget choices, the executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, says the funding problems have been a long time coming and stem from larger societal changes.
Recent cuts in state funding to universities have been deepened by the recession. They especially affect veterinary schools at land-grant universities, which were built on free land from the government in exchange for establishing schools of agriculture. Veterinary colleges often followed right behind. But Americans have moved from rural areas to urban centers in increasing numbers, and with this exodus goes plenty of political support for the rural universities—including the veterinary schools.
"Texas A&M is likely to get a cut, and this has been an issue for UC Davis for a while," Pappaioanou says. Louisiana State University is the latest school with a veterinary college to publicize its financial fight. (See the story on this page.)
Pappaioanou says veterinary schools increasingly have been forced to turn to students, parents and alumni for charitable gifts and higher tuition and fees. Many colleges have frozen faculty hiring and cut programs. These same things haven't happened to colleges of human medicine, nursing and dentistry, partly because those schools have always had to fight to stay afloat, according to Pappaioanou. Schools of human healthcare turned to research, and a current National Institutes of Health, with a budget of $31 billion, has money to fund them. The Department of Health and Human Services and its Health Resources and Services Administration directly support the work of medical schools. Unfortunately, there is no similarly funded state or federal department for companion animals or food animals that comes close, Pappaioanou says.
"The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) just announced a reorganization, with a budget of $1 billion, but it doesn't even include a division for animal protection," she says. And most of NIFA's money goes to agriculture and crop research. The natural tie of agriculture and food-animal research is one that veterinary colleges nationwide should explore and publicize. "We need research about food animals, but money from the United States Department of Agriculture is stagnant or increasing only a little," she says. "Most Americans, when they think of where food comes from, think of the grocery store."
That disconnect carries over into the veterinary schools, where many students don't want to be involved in food safety, slaughterhouse inspections, and crop and herd management, she says. Veterinarians, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the veterinary colleges will need to make the argument to government agencies, Congress and the public at large that animal health is closely tied to human health, whether it's through the food we eat or the pets we keep.
"Should we be making a case for pets supporting human mental health? Should we be studying pets' impact on human nutrition and obesity?" she says. "Right now there's no department for companion animals in the government."
Despite the financial pain in the short term, Pappaioanou says she's very optimistic that the veterinary profession will cope with the changing budget landscape. "Our profession has adapted to change before, and it will again now," she says. "In the 20th century, we went from horses to cars. Now in the 21st century, we're finding an even tighter connection between humans and animals."
"We'll make the case to the public and legislators that animals are important to human health and research. As we do that, we'll be stronger than ever."
Mr. Howard is a staff writer in Lenexa, Kan. Ms. Karapetian is a freelance journalist in Chicago.