• WisBusiness

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Academic R&D spending can translate to more economic growth statewide


By Tom Still
The latest figures from the National Science Foundation confirm what many people in Wisconsin already knew: the UW-Madison is one of the nation's leading research universities.

The numbers also underscore the fact that academic research and development isn't confined to the labs and research offices of the state's flagship university. Research and development work is taking place at colleges, universities and similar institutions across Wisconsin, and the total reflects a competitive edge most states would envy.

Sixteen academic institutions in Wisconsin spent $1.12 billion on science and engineering R&D in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2008, according to the NSF, up from $1.07 billion the previous year. That figure doesn't include about $40 million in research from two institutions not tracked by NSF -- the Marshfield Clinic and the Blood Center of Wisconsin -- or spending on non-science research by all 16 campuses.

The UW-Madison led the way with nearly $882 million in science and engineering spending, good for third on the list behind Johns Hopkins University and the University of California at San Francisco. That's right, the UW-Madison raised and spent more on R&D than UCLA, Michigan, Stanford, Harvard or MIT, to name a few universities most people would incorrectly suspect rank higher.

Toss in $63 million in non-science R&D spending at the UW-Madison, which was also third in that category, and the composite rank is second -- only behind Johns Hopkins, where about half of its $1.68 billion total is tied to defense work within its Applied Physics Laboratory.

More surprising to R&D groupies may be how much research is taking place outside Madison. The science and engineering total alone was $275 million in fiscal 2008, counting Marshfield and the Blood Center.

The Medical College of Wisconsin ($165 million) and UW-Milwaukee ($41 million) were the two biggest R&D centers outside Madison in 2008, but Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and 11 other UW campuses showed up on the NSF's rankings of the 690 schools that spend anything on research.

Study after study has established links between academic research and development and job creation through what is called "technology transfer," or moving ideas from the laboratory bench to the marketplace. Wisconsin is a state that consistently ranks in the top quartile of states in academic R&D -- but it has not matched that performance when it comes to turning those ideas into jobs and economic production. That's why UW System President Kevin Reilly created a "Research to Jobs" task force in early 2009 and asked Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, to lead it.

A core recommendation of the task force was creation of nine Emerging Technology Centers across Wisconsin to ramp up research that could translate to jobs. Two of the nine (tissue and cellular engineering at UW-River Falls and nanotechnology applications at UW-Platteville) have been launched. Others are planned for:

* UW-Oshkosh: Super‐capacity energy storage for next-generation electric cars and other energy intensive applications.
* UW-Stevens Point: Nanowire and nanostructure manufacturing for applications in solar energy, hydrogen sensors and nanoinstruments.
* UW-Whitewater: Interactive media and distance learning.
* UW-La Crosse: Pharmaceuticals based on medicinal plants and fungi.
* UW-Green Bay: Value-added products from waste, such as paper waste.
* UW-Stout: Plastics and composite materials, in collaboration with UW-Stevens Point.
* UW-Parkside: Biomedical sciences.

Over the past 80 years, WARF has done as good a job as any similar organization in transferring R&D into patents, licenses and economic activity. There are scores of companies in the Madison area that testify to the fact that UW-Madison research has moved from lab to commerce.

But most R&D apples don't fall far from the tree. The national rule of thumb is that most campus spinoff companies land within 50 miles of campus. The Emerging Technology Centers proposal is an effort to accelerate the transfer of technology from those campuses -- and to spur economic development in or near those campus communities.

Academic R&D spending is a tangible asset by itself, but its value is multiplied when the research yields new companies and jobs. It has happened in the Madison area -- it can happen elsewhere.
-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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