At UW–Madison, challenges to R&D success aren’t being swept under rug

Even with its tradition of research excellence, UW–Madison is caught in a perfect storm of challenges to its prominence.

It’s a storm that could dampen Wisconsin’s economy if it doesn’t soon pass.

Part of the maelstrom is a recurring story: State support for the university has declined for years, starting in the early 2000s, and basic research programs have suffered. While the latest state budget proposal from Gov. Scott Walker stands to help, it will take time to rebuild foundations eroded over time.

Basic research is a necessary precursor to applied research, which produces inventions and innovations that attract outside dollars — such as federal and private grants — and which lead to patents, products, and startup companies.

In part because UW–Madison’s basic research platform has been shaken, the campus dropped out of the nation’s top five-ranked research universities in 2015 for the first time since records have been kept. While it still attracts about $1.1 billion in R&D spending per year — dollars that flow far beyond the borders of the campus — UW–Madison has lost funding ground while competitors have not.

The problems aren’t just a function of state funding, however. Layers of regulation imposed at the state and federal levels make UW–Madison — in fact, the entire UW System — far less nimble than comparable academic institutions.  

Chancellor Rebecca Blank confronted part of that issue April 26 in Washington, D.C., when she told a Senate committee that excessive federal regulation of research “is seriously impeding the productivity of our scientists.” Not that red tape will ever disappear for R&D grants, Blank noted, but it has reached the point where some grants come with 23 layers of administrative strings attached.

The number of full-time workers at UW–Madison who do nothing but deal with regulatory compliance on human and animal research projects alone has grown from 50 to 80 in the past 10 years, Blank said. One federal audit alone required 4,500 hours of staff time.

“I cannot think of another function on campus that has added 30 full-time positions in the past decade,” Blank said in urging senators to create a new Research Policy Board to streamline grant application and reporting requirements.

While state government doesn’t formally regulate research, state lawmakers occasionally introduce bills that would make UW–Madison and other campuses less competitive than their peers by imposing restrictions on the types of research conducted.

This is not to say UW–Madison doesn’t produce a lot of Badger red tape of its own. For example, some emerging companies in health care have found it difficult to navigate the university’s clinical trials process. Campus research leaders are working on ways to keep clinical trials and other projects on schedule and to eliminate other surprises for cash-strapped entrepreneurs.

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Although hundreds of startup companies over time can trace their roots to research at UW–Madison, the size of the overall research budget should yield even more Wisconsin-based success stories.

A recent report by the independent Milken Institute suggests where there is room for improvement. “Concept to Commercialization: The Best Universities for Technology Transfer” ranked UW–Madison 40th among 225 U.S. universities covered by the report. That’s down from 22nd in 2006, the last time the survey was conducted.

UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, its independent patent and licensing arm, scored high on patents issued and licensing income from those patents. It was comparatively low in two other important measures: licenses issued and startups.

In part, that’s because other universities surveyed by Milken own more than just patented ideas. They also own copyrighted intellectual property generated on campus. Most software inventions are copyrighted but not patented. Neither UW–Madison nor WARF hold such copyrights, which mean they can’t be counted in the rankings.

A bigger issue is removing hurdles and providing incentives to faculty and students who want to start companies.

“UW–Madison and WARF must continually improve in its efforts at fostering an entrepreneurial environment and supporting the establishment of startup companies,” said Erik Iverson, who became WARF’s managing director in mid-2016. “The team has worked hard in this area over the past few years and … this is a priority initiative in our new strategy.”

Reliable funding, less regulation, and more emphasis of moving ideas from the lab to the marketplace are needed to keep UW–Madison among the nation’s R&D leaders. Campus leaders know they’re in the eye of the storm and are working to find their way out.

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