02 Feb Rethinking UW support: Tom Still calls for building academic R&D
Editor’s note: As economic news worsens and the projected state budget deficit grows, it’s increasingly unlikely that state government will begin to reverse the 25-year funding decline for the University of Wisconsin System in the next biennial budget. Nevertheless, Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, and others that tout the economic value of academic research and development say the Governor and lawmakers must do more than cut spending and raise taxes – they must figure out a way to stimulate economic growth. In this Visions interview with Still, he tells WTN that boosting university support and technology transfer is a demonstrated jobs creator.
Still was interviewed as the Tech Council released a new report on the economic value of academic R&D.
WTN: What point is the Tech Council trying to make to the Legislature on academic R&D?
Still: It’s a reminder that academic R&D is big business in Wisconsin. It’s a $1.1 billion industry that extends to all corners of the state. While a lot of that research is clustered in Madison, which is home to one of the leading research universities in the world, it is by no means limited to Madison. The opportunity to build on the foundation of academic R&D at other UW System campuses, at private institutions, and elsewhere in Wisconsin is extremely strong.
These are trying economic times. All institutions and all aspects of society in the economy are feeling it, but if we can invest in something that we do well, which is science and technology-related research, we stand a much better chance of coming out of this recession with a stronger platform and opportunities to grow.
WTN: Even though some of the report’s focus is taken away from UW-Madison, is the state’s flagship university is an example of how academic R&D is a jobs creator?
Still: It absolutely is. UW-Madison, according to the figures in this report, attracted $841 million in science and engineering research in the most recent year. There was an additional $72 million in non-science and engineering research. That equates to a lot of jobs in this region and statewide, even using a fairly conservative U.S. Commerce Department-Bureau of Economic Analysis economic multiplier. Each $1 million worth of academic R&D equates to 36 direct and indirect jobs. That puts academic R&D on a par with some of our other economic sectors in Wisconsin, and it’s an emerging sector. It’s a sector that has shown growth over the last decade and beyond, and it has historic roots in the state. It’s not like this began yesterday. This began at the turn of the century in Wisconsin, and it’s one of our long-term strengths. So therefore I believe that needs to be nurtured.
WTN: Is there any reason the Madison success story can’t be replicated on some scale on the other campuses?
Still: The reasons to do so are strong because there is ample evidence that R&D provides jobs in close proximity to where the research took place. The only thing holding it back would be money. Even then, it’s not as though outlandish or disproportionate investments would be required. In many cases, we could tap into a core of professors who are already on campus throughout the UW System who, with some time released from their teaching duties, which could be back filled by others, can attract sizeable grants that can lead to direct jobs on the campus and indirect jobs through the purchasing, through the kinds of economic activities that revolve around those grants, and then eventually other direct jobs through the creation of new companies.
It’s in the direct interest of the state of Wisconsin to support its academic R&D infrastructure because it attracts so much outside money at a time when Wisconsin has shown that it can put that money to good use.
WTN: How important is it for communities like Stevens Point and LaCrosse and Oshkosh to feel as though they can play a part in the knowledge economy – just like Milwaukee and Madison do?
Still: They can and to some extent already do play a big part in that economy, and they have the opportunity to move ahead even more quickly. They’ve got some first-class campuses in those cities and other communities around the UW System. To the extent that the research potential of those campuses can be fully unleashed, there is no reason that we couldn’t see significant improvement in UW System research, which right now stands at about $54 million, to at least a doubling of that amount and perhaps more. It won’t happen overnight, but it could happen in a five- to seven-year time frame that would lead to significant economic activity in Wisconsin.
WTN: A lot of the research being done at our universities appears to be aligned with pieces of the President’s stimulus goals, including alternative fuels, rural broadband, and healthcare IT. How well positioned is Wisconsin to be part of this massive economic thrust?
Still: We have developed a stable of R&D expertise that fits closely, if not precisely, with national priorities. At a time when President Obama is looking for ways to stimulate the economy, I believe a broader definition of shovel-ready is in order. Shovel-ready, of course, will include bridges and roads, but shovel-ready can also include the tool kits of the 21st Century. That’s research into life sciences and biofuels. It’s activity around broadband and the ability of the Internet to spread economic activity into corners of the state where it might not otherwise take place.
The excitement that I think is being generated right now around some of these stimulus ideas in Wisconsin is because people here recognize that we have the kinds of expertise and the kind of background to make it work.