Across UW System, undergraduate research is emerging tool for growth

A young crowd outfitted with posters, placards, and a zeal for reaching out to state legislators crowded into the Capitol Rotunda last Wednesday and wouldn’t budge for hours.

A fresh crop of political protesters? On the contrary, it was more than 100 of the best and brightest researchers from University of Wisconsin System campuses who, along with their faculty advisers, took part in the 10th annual “Posters in the Rotunda” event.

For lawmakers and others who toured the student exhibits, it was a hands-on demonstration of the power of undergraduate research in Wisconsin – and a reminder that good ideas aren’t limited to the high-powered academic labs in Madison and Milwaukee.

Wisconsin is perennially among the top 15 states when it comes to academic research and development grants and spending, in large part because the UW-Madison is a national leader at roughly $1 billion in annual R&D. A handful of Milwaukee institutions, such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW-Milwaukee, account for another $250 million.

Less apparent is the growth in academic R&D activity outside the state’s largest campuses, including the 11 nondoctoral, four-year campuses outside Madison and Milwaukee.

Significant research activity is taking place across the rest of the UW System, often led by faculty researchers – some of whom are also launching companies – but also among students who may become the Ph.D. candidates and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

“Posters in the Rotunda” attracted attention from state lawmakers and others who were impressed by what they saw and intrigued by what it might mean for economic development statewide.

The reason most academic R&D takes place on doctoral campuses is that graduate students are the muscle behind major projects. While tenured faculty are at the top of the food chain, graduate students provide the necessary hands, eyes, and brains to get much of the work done. Academic R&D is a team sport, especially when different scientific and technical disciplines are involved.

The challenge of carrying out R&D on nondoctoral campuses is twofold: Most faculty researchers have significant teaching duties, and there’s no ready pool of student researchers beyond the master’s degree level. That’s where growth in undergraduate research comes into play.

Students who participate in advanced research are much more likely to stay in school, graduate in a timely manner, find employment after graduation, and attend graduate schools. They are also more likely to take an interest in becoming entrepreneurs, which is crucial in a state that continues to lag most of the nation in company creation.

Undergraduate research is not just a Wisconsin trend, as evidenced by this month’s National Conference on Undergraduate Research on the UW-La Crosse campus. Some 3,000 students and faculty advisers from 48 states and seven countries took part in the three-day conference.

For Wisconsin, a growing supply of undergraduate researchers across Wisconsin means a better-trained workforce and more opportunity for investment and company start ups.

 

The WiSys Technology Foundation, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, works with researchers outside the Madison and Milwaukee campuses to connect R&D with commercial applications. About 20 companies statewide are working with WiSys.

The rise in angel investing across Wisconsin also aligns with that trend. In 2004, there were only a handful of angel groups in Wisconsin and all but one was located in Madison or Milwaukee. Today, there are more than two dozen angel groups in Wisconsin and 12 are based outside the Madison and Milwaukee metro areas, usually within a short drive of a four-year campus.

If the Legislature enacts an early-stage investment fund, matched by private dollars, the “farm system” being created around R&D projects from UW System and private college campuses will prove instrumental to economic growth.

Building a workforce and companies equipped to compete in the “knowledge economy” of the 21st century often starts with targeted educational opportunities. For many students in Wisconsin, that begins with the chance to conduct hands-on research as undergrads.

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