30 Aug Departure of nanotech researcher stings UW
Madison, Wis. – The recent decision by a young researcher to leave the University of Wisconsin-Madison has exposed some of the financial consequences of the same-sex union debate in Wisconsin.
Rob Carpick, an associate engineering physics professor and nanotechnology researcher, has won $3.4 million in grants since coming to Madison in 2000. At the end of the year, he will take his knowledge and research with him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he says he will be treated fairly.
Carpick calls a state law preventing the university from providing health insurance benefits to his domestic partner discriminatory. His decision follows a lawsuit filed in 2005 by the American Civil Liberties Union and six lesbian couples asking the court to strike down the law as an unconstitutional violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees.
“I’m going to Penn so I can get domestic partner benefits and be at an institution that has an unfettered commitment to doing top-quality research without the interference of backward-thinking legislators,” Carpick said.
Many institutions across the country offer such benefits, including all other Big 10 schools and 8,000 employers nationwide. Over 100 Wisconsin employers and 247 companies in the Fortune 500 offer such benefits, according to Action Wisconsin, a resource for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Carpick’s grant money pays for all the equipment, fees, supplies, and graduate student stipends required to run his laboratory work. For every dollar he spends from his grants, 47.5 cents goes to UW-Madison’s central budget to cover buildings, support staff, and other essential expenses. This overhead tax on grant money is a standard fee and all of Carpick’s forthcoming grants will support the University of Pennsylvania.
Carpick said the negative comments of some legislators made recruitment efforts from the University of Florida and the University of Michigan appealing.
“It’s frankly hurtful,” Carpick said, “and it takes away your motivation and energy, and you feel unappreciated.”
“An enormous loss”
Colleagues describe Carpick as one of the top minds in the field of “nanotribology,” a sub-field of tribology, which involves the study of friction in machines. The UW-Madison College of Engineering recruited him while he was completing postdoctoral studies at Sandia National Laboratories, a government owned and contractor operated national defense facility.
“We worked very hard to get him to decide that we were a place where he could start flourishing,” said Michael Corradini, chairman of the engineering physics department. “He’s the perfect sort of person you would want as an individual research investigator.
“I knew he was troubled about the [domestic partner] policy and the whole attitude for months. It’s an enormous loss.”
Several university jobs, including staff scientist and postdoctoral laboratory assistant positions, will be lost with Carpick’s departure.
Last year, Gov. Jim Doyle proposed a plan to cover domestic partner health insurance benefits for university employees with an estimated cost of $500,000 annually. But the legislature scrapped the idea, citing both moral and financial concerns.
Although Carpick argued that his grant dollars alone would make up for the cost, Republican policy analysts felt that Doyle’s projection was exceedingly low. Bob Delaporte, communications director for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said the actual cost would have been at least twice Doyle’s estimate. Delaporte further explained that lawmakers were uninterested in distributing perks to well-paid professors while grappling with a strained budget.
“It’s a harder sell, when we’re in a deficit, for folks across Wisconsin to say somebody with $90,000 isn’t getting enough benefits when the average salary up in the Hayward area is around $20,000 for a family,” Delaporte said.
Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, has pushed state lawmakers to offer domestic partner benefits for over a decade.
“The current legislative majority has tried to take partisan advantage of their position of discriminating against domestic partners,” Black said. “We put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage when we tell some people… that we won’t treat them fairly.”
Black pointed out that while lawmakers will “definitely” attempt to reintroduce the issue, much depends on the results of the November election.
Besides determining the composition of the state legislature and which candidate will occupy the governor’s office, voters will also directly decide the question of same-sex marriage. The November ballot includes a referendum with the power to define legally recognized marriage as between one man and one woman. If the amendment passes, it would be left open for the courts to interpret whether the amendment categorically preempts domestic partner benefits.
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