We met two decades ago — a Republican governor from the small town of Elroy, Wisconsin, and a Democrat University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of biochemistry from New York.
It might have first appeared we had little in common, but we bonded over the Wisconsin Idea – the belief that the wealth of knowledge and research at the University of Wisconsin should be utilized to improve people’s lives across the state.
Now we’re joining together again to support a new Wisconsin Idea, one that builds on our state’s great history while addressing specific 21st century challenges.
Wisconsin is where the concepts of unemployment and workers compensation were first developed, along with Medicaid and Social Security. It’s where scientists discovered that vitamin D foods cure rickets and that warfarin prevents blood clotting. Campus research developed into constructive public policy and beneficial products – cooperation in the name of progress.
Twenty years ago, after an introduction by then-Chancellor John Wiley, we worked together to address a lack of faculty and lab space in the biosciences at UW-Madison. The result — with abundant help from many colleagues in both the political and academic arenas — was the $317 million BioStar Initiative, which included an addition to the Biotechnology Center as well as renovations and additional buildings for biology-related departments.
It was great for the university, and great for the state of Wisconsin.
Two decades on, however, we look around our state and find ourselves at a crossroads. Wisconsin’s population is growing older. Enrollment in the UW System campuses is declining. New jobs demand technology skills many of our people don’t have.
There is a recognition of the problem — but little cohesion in finding solutions.
We need to think big, and have the courage to live up to our potential.
Today’s new Wisconsin Idea is all about how we can position our state to once again be a leader — in economic development, in innovation, in protecting our environment, and in graduating students who can make it happen.
We must also recognize that we all own this challenge. Let’s consider some components of the new Wisconsin Idea.
The new Wisconsin Idea must begin by re-examining how we engage with each other — our universities with industry and industry with our universities. We must meet and talk and plan to address each other’s needs. Addressing an aging workforce as well as graduates leaving our state requires collaborative conversations that generate joint solutions. We should jointly discuss if we are matching resources to address employment needs and business growth while also sustaining the exceptional research and educational environment our universities are known worldwide for producing. Not unlike the Wisconsin Idea, the means, frequency and quality of our engagement and joint solution building must be re-examined and retooled for the next generation of mutual success.
We have areas of tremendous expertise and excellence. Several of our four-year universities should be turned into specialized centers of excellence for Wisconsin. UW-River Falls for agriculture, for example, UW-Stevens Point for natural resources, and UW-La Crosse for health sciences. If we put in the resources, they could become specialty schools for the nation.
There is potential for a powerful alignment between Madison and Milwaukee, combining research prowess and economic power. In the manner of the research triangle in North Carolina, it could attract economic development that would benefit an entire region, as well as the rest of the state.
The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which patents, licenses and commercializes innovations from our university inventors, should draw on its expertise and share its knowledge in entrepreneurialism and how it positively affects economic development.
We need to make innovation a priority. The scientist’s job is to winnow and sift, without any trepidation, revealing scientific truths and teasing the secrets out of nature. In biology, for example, we are thinking boldly by trying to develop a method that will tell us which protein has had its three-dimensional structure changed when a cell becomes cancerous or is treated with a drug. That has never been achieved before, and would allow labs all over the world to make important new discoveries and hasten drug discovery for disease treatments and cures.
Finally, we need to make sure everyone knows what happens when Wisconsin thinks big. We propose having a series of economic summits around the state, to generate enthusiasm and excitement about the work coming out of our universities from Platteville to Superior.
We know this can work in Wisconsin because it has worked in Wisconsin. The opportunity is there, we need only embrace it. Now there’s an idea.