By Tom Still


MADISON – It’s been a long time since Wisconsin landed a federal research laboratory… too long, many observers might say.


The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory came to Madison in 1910 when Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, was pioneering scientific forestry. The NationalWildlifeHealthCenter, established in Madison in 1975, has been back in the news as scientists there engage in a race against bird flu.


The latest addition is the Great LakesBioenergyResearchCenter, which will explore ways to convert all types of biomass into fuel for cars and power plants. It is a $125-million, five-year grant that will eventually leverage another $100 million in state and private dollars.


The U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday it had funded a proposal crafted by the UW-Madison, MichiganStateUniversity and an impressive list of corporate and research partners. Two other DOE bioenergy labs – also funded at $125 million each – will be established through Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. It’s all part of President Bush’s plan to accelerate U.S. energy independence.


How did Wisconsin emerge on top in this high-stakes national competition, and what must happen next for this project to succeed on a global, national and state scale?


First, let’s credit those who have built and sustained the UW-Madison and the UW System over the past 150 years. Major federal labs are not often plopped down in the middle of corn fields. They are usually located near existing research centers with track records of attracting and managing large grants, and which have experience in working with industry and other academic partners.


Because federal labs conduct research aimed at solving complicated problems, they also tend to cluster around institutions armed with a range of scientific disciplines. “Interdisciplinary research” is the buzzword in the academic R&D world these days, and UW-Madison fits the bill as well as any university in the United States.


The UW-Madison and the UW System didn’t develop that expertise overnight. Public investment over time has ensured that UW campuses have excellent facilities and faculty. Federal funding has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, especially in scientific disciplines, and actually provides a greater share of the total UW-Madison budget than the state. Private dollars have leveraged the process even more, as the planned Morgridge Institute for Discovery on the UW-Madison campus demonstrates.


Those kinds of partnerships must continue for the Great LakesBioenergyResearchCenter to reach its full potential. The state and the UW will be asked to fund $50 million for a new building (existing labs can be used for a while) and $4 million to release faculty for more research work. The state and the UW will work to raise another $50 million for the building from private sources.


Attracting private dollars won’t be all that difficult – given the enormous opportunities presented by the biofuels revolution – so long as state government doesn’t stump its toe.


Gov. Jim Doyle has proposed $30 million in grants and loans for alternative energy solutions as a part of his two-year budget bill. That proposal failed to clear the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, but was reinstated in the Senate. It now goes to the state Assembly, where its fate is uncertain.


If the U.S. Department of Energy believes Wisconsin is worth the investment, so should state lawmakers. Let’s focus state grant dollars on helping companies get up and running as researchers identify the best commercial prospects.


Wisconsin stands at a crossroads in the biofuels era. With the help of the DOE lab, the state will become a global center of biofuels research and company creation. The economy of rural Wisconsin, which has been transformed so many times in the past through better technology and practices, will undergo a 21st century economic renaissance.


Federal labs don’t come along every day, as Wisconsin’s record shows. The state should leverage this victory to promote a natural winner for the Wisconsin economy – production of a new generation of clean, abundant fuels.


Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.