Multiple centers for research will help Wisconsin’s high-growth economy

While economists don’t often agree on much, it’s hard to find much dissent over the notion that major research universities contribute to the prosperity of the cities, regions, and states around them.

Studies by the Federal Reserve Bank and others have cited the power of academic research and development in the economy, from direct spending tied to such research to the transfer of knowledge to companies of all sizes to the “human capital” that comes with the creation of a highly skilled workforce.

The UW-Madison is one of the nation’s leading research universities by several measures — dollars invested, patents produced, and ideas licensed or otherwise transferred to the market — but it was Wisconsin’s only academic R&D center for more than 100 years. However, the past decade or so has brought change.

Other states claim multiple R&D centers that contribute to their economies, and it’s not just the mega-states such as California, New York, and Texas. The success of the Research Triangle in North Carolina is tied to the combined horsepower of Duke, North Carolina, and North Carolina State universities, to cite one familiar example.

Closer to home, Illinois has R&D hubs at the University of Illinois, Northwestern, and the University of Chicago; Indiana is home to Indiana University and Purdue; Michigan has Michigan and Michigan State; Pennsylvania boasts Penn State and Pittsburgh; Iowa has the University of Iowa and Iowa State; and Minnesota has the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, which functions like an academic institution in some ways.

The importance of a second research hub for Wisconsin was part of a message delivered last week in Milwaukee by UW-Madison Chancellor Becky Blank, who spoke to a meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network.

Blank outlined existing partnerships between the UW-Madison and companies in the Milwaukee region, including GE Healthcare and Rockwell Automation, as well as those with emerging research centers such as the UW-Milwaukee. She described such efforts as “absolutely critical to the state’s economy,” especially in an era when other nations are doubling down on their R&D investments.

Academic research centers “are the ideas factory for this nation,” Blank said, and they’re most effective if they establish working relationships with companies and other institutions that pull out the best ideas and put them to work in the economy.

The UW-Madison has been a top-five research university in terms of dollars attracted and spent for two decades or more, ranking with Johns Hopkins, Michigan, the University of Washington, Duke, and a handful of California campuses.

The problem with academic R&D is that it doesn’t always result in company creation — much is basic research with long-term value — and when it does transfer, it’s often close to home. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, which is why the Madison area has benefited the most from UW-Madison’s R&D depth.

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The same phenomenon is slowly taking shape in Milwaukee, where the UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, the BloodCenter of Wisconsin, and the Milwaukee School of Engineering form a combined R&D base for the region and the state.

Collectively, those institutions spend about $300 million on R&D, which is about a quarter of the UW-Madison’s total but still substantial. The UW-Milwaukee and MSOE, in particular, have been focused on developing industry partnerships, which have allowed them to ramp up their R&D activities more quickly.

The latest example of such a partnership is the new School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee, unveiled through an open house Friday and Saturday. Although linked to UW-Milwaukee water research that dates to the 1960s, the school became the nation’s first graduate school devoted to freshwater research in 2009. Its latest $53 million facility includes 94,000 square feet of new space and will support the work of Milwaukee’s Water Council, the Global Water Center, and water-based industries in the region.

Many universities have struggled to transfer technology from the lab to the marketplace, Blank told the Milwaukee crowd, so academic leaders must think differently about how to commercialize campus innovations. Other nations’ governments are investing more in research, yet “we’re shrinking as a nation [in federal research dollars] — and that’s a problem,” Blank said. The consequences will be visible 10 or 15 years from now, she warned, when American businesses are less competitive.

Wisconsin can hope to stay competitive by leveraging R&D assets in its two largest cities and finding ways to tap into research ideas elsewhere in the state. The more that effort involves partnerships with businesses that know how to build products, jobs, and value, the better.

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