Walker cuts to UW have tragic effect on quality

UW Madison researchers
Researchers in a lab at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison. Photo courtesy of CALS.

UW-Madison is no longer a top-five research institution, after years of funding cuts, including a massive blow by Gov. Scott Walker and his legislative allies in the last state budget.

Since the 1970s, UW-Madison has been a top five research institution. But no longer, according to new information from the National Science Foundation.

When Walker took office, UW-Madison was 3rd overall. It has now slipped to 6th, and the trend line is going down. Walker and his right-wing allies slashed $250 million from the UW System and refused to back-fill with increased tuition. Those followed cuts in the previous administration — although increased tuition lessened the blow in earlier years.

Mark Bugher, a former top aide to Tommy Thompson, said to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We in Wisconsin can’t claim we’re in the top five on many things, but this is one where we’ve consistently been able to demonstrate to the world that UW-Madison is a premier research institution. To lose that distinction is unacceptable, in my opinion.”

Bugher also ran University Research Park, a quasi-governmental agency in Madison that helps drive research and innovation funding.

According to the Journal Sentinel:

Critics of state budget cuts have warned for years that continued cuts in the state’s investment could lead to the state’s flagship campus struggling to keep star researchers from being lured away by other elite research powerhouses. There are also concerns that less research activity at UW-Madison will hurt Wisconsin’s ability to participate in the knowledge economy and create high-potential, job-creating startups.

Others noted the effect of “brain drain,” where the most talented entrepreneurs and researchers choose to conduct research and create companies in other states.

Joe Kirgues, known as one of the founders of gener8tor, an innovation and entrepreneurship organization, said to the Journal Sentinel, “The alternative to a strong UW system is a continued brain drain from the state of Wisconsin and thousands, if not tens of thousands of lost jobs. Our fervent hope is that the state’s elected and business leaders work together to keep this university an internationally-recognized research school.”

UW-Madison leaders indicated they still consider the university an “elite research institution,” but warned that without additional state investment, they will be less able to compete for top-notch faculty and research dollars.

In a media release, UW-Madison said:

Research dollars attracted to Wisconsin pay for salaries, services, supplies and equipment to support research, serving as an important statewide economic driver. Money from UW-Madison research grants is spent in every one of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. According to the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association, UW-Madison – through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation – ranked seventh among universities worldwide in 2015 with 161 new patents. Nearly 25,000 jobs supported through 362 startup companies can be fairly attributed to UW-Madison programs of research, according to NorthStar Economics, contributing $2.3 billion annually to Wisconsin’s economy.

Read more in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and in the Wisconsin State Journal.

This story has been updated with UW-Madison’s reaction.