By Tom Still
MADISON – Ever since the Trojans hauled that giant wooden statue inside their walls, and woke up to the sound of armed Greeks in the streets, people have been examining gift horses carefully. There’s generally nothing wrong with that careful policy – within reason.
The state Building Commission will define what’s within reason Wednesday when it considers a landmark plan to build the first phase of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, a research center that will accelerate the pace of medical breakthroughs, create jobs, and train scientists from an array of 21st century disciplines.
This $150-million project, to be built in the heart of the UW-Madison campus, should be heartily approved by the commission. Lengthy staring into the mouth of this gift horse is not required.
Here are seven lucky reasons why the Building Commission, which includes Gov. Jim Doyle, six legislators and one citizen member, should approve this proposal and keep it on track for construction in 2007 and opening in 2009:
- The gift comes from people we know and trust. Of the $150 million committed to the first phase, $50 million was donated earlier this month by John and Tashia Morgridge, Wisconsin natives who built Cisco Systems into one of America’s best high-tech companies. The Morgridges have given back to the UW-Madison, their alma mater, several times before. Another $50 million comes from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, a private organization established 80 years ago to help transfer the best UW discoveries into the marketplace. Another $50 million would come from the state.
- The Institutes of Discovery would not be purely a UW-Madison building. In fact, plans are already in place to ensure that it would be available to researchers across Wisconsin. That would help harness the largely untapped research capacity of other UW campuses, private institutions and companies. It would also serve an educational purpose, with training sessions for established workers, short courses and tours for young people.
- It would be the first facility of its kind in the Midwest. Part of the institute would be public, and part private (built with the Morgridge gift). That is a successful formula that has worked at the Scripps Research Institute in southern California, at Stanford University’s Clark Institute, and at the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- It’s not just about human embryonic stem cell research. Some opponents have leaped to the conclusion that the Institutes for Discovery are merely a clever way to conduct stem cell research on campus, and to circumvent federal rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wisconsin researchers have worked within all federal guidelines since President Bush issued his order in August 2001 – and, in fact, has prospered by doing so. There would be far easier ways to dodge federal rules than to build a $150-million research center.
- It’s about all types of science, especially the search for cures. By allowing chemists, biologists, engineers and even computer scientists to work together, the pace of discovery will quicken and the best ideas will flow more easily from the lab bench to the physician’s office. For example, scientists are learning more every day (thanks to the mapping of the human genome) about regenerative, self-healing processes. While stem cell research has long captured the limelight as one path to the goal of regenerative medicine, scientists are following other paths that could someday unlock other methods for repairing diseased or damaged tissue and organs.
- The competition is watching. Biotechnology and related sciences are so hot that virtually all states and most countries are pouring billions of dollars into getting a leg up. Wisconsin doesn’t need to spend that much to stay ahead; past policymakers have invested wisely in the UW-Madison’s research base since the late 1800s. But we must spend enough to maintain that lead, and protect past investments. The Institutes for Discovery will help provide that edge.
- If we turn down this gift, it might be one of the last Wisconsin ever sees. As state government provides a smaller percentage of the UW budget, private dollars have helped to fill the gap. But those private dollars would evaporate if a relative handful of policymakers blocked a multi-disciplinary project of this size over exaggerated concerns about one science (stem cell research) among many.
The Building Commission should keep the Institutes of Discovery on track. This is one gift horse that should be allowed to run.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.