MADISON — The annual report by the National Science Foundation on research and development spending by U.S. colleges and universities confirmed what many people already know: The UW-Madison is a powerhouse when it comes to attracting R&D dollars.

Tom Still


What’s less known without a deeper dive in the NSF’s Higher Education Research and Development survey is UW-Madison isn’t alone in Wisconsin when it comes to R&D activity.

The state’s flagship campus ranked sixth in the United States with $1.194 billion in total R&D dollars raised and spent in 2017, according to the NSF, with about half of that amount — $570.8 million – coming from federal sources. The rest came from other institutions, such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the UW Foundation, businesses and other private sources.

Other than second-place Michigan ($1.530 billion), UW-Madison topped all other Big Ten Conference schools in the survey, which ranked 644 colleges and universities nationwide. Other Big Ten schools ranged from 17th to 77th on that list.

Academic R&D in Wisconsin totaled a little more than $1.5 billion, largely on the strength of three institutions – the Medical College of Wisconsin, the UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University – that have seen their research activities grow significantly in recent years.

Ranked just outside the top 100 at No. 105, MCW reported $209.6 million in research, up from $165 million 10 years ago. The UW-Milwaukee (No. 192) showed $54.2 million in research, the result of greater emphasis on R&D work by a succession of chancellors spanning about 20 years. Marquette University (No. 219) reported $30 million in research, triple what was raised and spent in 2008.

That means at least $294 million in research is clustered in the Milwaukee region, where the effort is beginning to pay off in the form of young startups and more innovation by major firms.

The NSF reported the rest of the UW System, primarily campuses in La Crosse, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Oshkosh, Green Bay, River Falls and Platteville, raised and spent about $15 million. Those campuses don’t have doctoral degree programs, which partly explains the modest total, but another factor is that most researchers on those campuses also have heavy teaching loads. It’s hard to be two places at once.

A breakdown of the UW-Madison’s R&D total speak to challenges the campus must confront as it strives to remain one the nation’s most diverse research universities.

The good news was that more R&D dollars were raised through business-related research (up 7.3 percent), non-profit groups such as health-related causes (8.8 percent) and institutional funds (9.1 percent).

The “old” news was that federal R&D spending remained flat, the result of reductions that have spanned much of the 2000s.

The bad news was the decline in state and local government funding, which fell 11.3 percent. Without consistent state support for basic research, it is difficult to attract funding for the kind of applied research that creates companies and jobs.

On the federal side, the UW-Madison’s rank ranged widely in terms of the agency source. The campus ranked 4th in the nation in funding from the Department of Energy, about $60.8 million, largely focused within the College of Engineering and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

The UW-Madison was 12th in funding directly from the National Science Foundation ($84.4 million), 16th in support from the Department of Agriculture ($27.4 million), 21st in grants from the Department of Health and Human Services ($314.8 million), 24th on the list for NASA ($12.5 million) and 15th on the list that captured most smaller agencies ($44.3 million).

One area that could be improved is spending by the Department of Defense, where the UW-Madison ranked 46th nationally. Most of the DOD spending of $26.7 million was clustered in life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

Research at the UW-Madison is spread among all colleges and schools, including the humanities, which helps to explain why the campus consistently ranks among U.S. leaders.

There’s also a growing amount of academic R&D activity spread around the state, which also contributes to the Wisconsin economy.

To nourish a research environment many other states would envy, state policymakers should provide enough seed money to help.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.


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