15 Oct Wisconsin seeks to regain its place in classified research
Brookfield, Wis. – Wisconsin once received its fair share of classified research and defense dollars and would like to again, but first it has to get over what one business leader calls a “Vietnam hangover.”
The organization established to secure more classified research grants for Wisconsin colleges and businesses took center stage at a luncheon meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network’s Milwaukee-area chapter.
Jack Heinemann, director of the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, said the consortium is working to create a path to more federal grant funding, and made it clear that Wisconsin is trying to close the gap not only with populous states like California and Texas, but with neighbors like Minnesota.
Minnesota receives about $400 million more for sensitive research without a single military base, and Wisconsin has only a 1 percent share ($1.7 billion) of the $200 billion annual Department of Defense budget, but Heinemann said Wisconsin is well positioned from an information technology standpoint to attract more. One of the challenges is packaging it to the DoD, which the consortium has targeted because it is one of the largest financiers of R&D dollars in the nation.
“We’ve been developing collaborations between the university-academia sector and also industry because one of the things the DoD is doing is funding research where it can see outcomes within five to seven years,” Heinemann said. “They’re using some `spiral’ technology, so basically get it out today and we’ll hitchhike off of that basic research or that classified research as we move forward.”
The consortium, funded with a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, is talking to the science and technology people in the federal government so that it understands what their needs are. With 11 public- and private-sector members, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and the Marshfield Clinic, it also is looking at Wisconsin’s research assets so it can match Wisconsin’s strengths with federal research needs. Heinemann said the government wants to get industry involved sooner in the process so that it can more accurately assess the commercial potential of research.
Given that commercial-testing aspect, Heineman also is trying to get businesses involved sooner rather than later, and has three projects in the works that have an industry partner and a University of Wisconsin System partner. The first two projects, which involve power technology (for electric distribution) and biomechanics involving engine technology, are being conducted with UW-Madison, and the consortium also is looking for projects out of Milwaukee.
The August 1970 bombing of UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall, once home to the university’s physics department and Army Mathematics Research Center, is sometimes cited as a turning point in the state’s ability to attract military research dollars. Those in attendance at the WIN Luncheon including John Wiley, chancellor of UW-Madison, a strong backer of the consortium’s efforts.
Not only did the Sterling Hall bombing, conducted as a Vietnam War protest, seriously injure four people and cause the death of physics researcher Robert Fassnacht, who was not even involved in the Army Math Research Center, the state has yet to recover in terms of classified research dollars.
That deficiency persists even though the state has produced two Secretaries of Defense, Melvin Laird during the Nixon Administration and Les Aspin during the Clinton Administration.
“Some of us would refer to it as a hangover from Vietnam,” said Tom Hefty, co-chairman of the Governor’s Economic Growth Council and a board member of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Asked how university populations would react to additional classified military research, especially with another unpopular war unfolding, Heinemann said some people will get involved and others won’t. “The people that don’t [get involved], we’re not pushing,” he said.
According to Heinemann, the consortium will target basic research that could be developed into classified research. An example is the anthrax vaccine, which was developed in Wisconsin but became classified following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing anthrax scare.
Heinemann also noted the targeted research is not necessarily offensive in nature, and includes ways to reduce the amount of fuel that soldiers need to do their work. In theory, that would reduce the deaths and casualties associated with improvised explosive devices that target military convoys, most of which are moving fuel. “A lot of the stuff we’re looking at is defensive, supporting the soldier,” he said.
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