By Tom Still

MADISON – Eric Singsaas is the kind of professor you might not expect to find at a UW System campus outside Madison or Milwaukee. He’s a Ph.D botanist and biochemist at UW-Stevens Point with expertise in the biological production of hydrocarbons ordinarily made by plants. That puts him on the cusp of the emerging biofuels industry, a potential source of economic growth for Wisconsin.

But Singsaas is still very much a typical UW System professor in one major way: He’s essentially tied to the classroom. With four classes and all the preparation time that goes into teaching them, Singsaas is hard-pressed to find time to collaborate with other researchers, write grants, manage a laboratory and advise private industry – all things his peers at larger institutions do as a matter of course.

If Singsaas could be relieved of even part of his teaching load, he might attract 10 to 20 times his salary in research grants. That could pay for backfilling his teaching duties and much more. And if more professors at Stevens Point and other UW System campuses could conduct more research, pockets of research excellence outside Madison and Milwaukee would be quicker to grow – and to seed local economies.

There are literally hundreds of UW faculty members outside Madison and Milwaukee who have the credentials and the desire to conduct high-level R&D, but the resources, facilities and necessary political culture for them to do so is often lacking. State lawmakers who want UW System campuses to contribute more to the state’s economic well-being should think about changing that equation.

The soft-spoken Singsaas is far from a complainer; he enjoys his work at UW-Stevens Point. But be also admits “there are opportunities to develop workloads that make better use of our skills and assets as a university.”

In the highly competitive world of grant-writing, professors at major research universities have at least two advantages: freedom to focus on writing the grant and the facilities to conduct the work. For professors outside doctoral campuses, it’s tough to keep up with scientific journals, collect preliminary data, manage a lab and write a grant when the work is squeezed between classes. The WiSys Technology Foundation (a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) helps some UW System professors with small grants to “buy out” teaching time while professors are writing grants, but that’s tapping only a fraction of the market.

If the UW System could release research-oriented professors from teaching, more R&D centers could emerge outside Madison and Milwaukee without diluting the efforts of those campuses. Right now, UW-Madison attracts nearly $800 million per year in academic R&D dollars and UW-Milwaukee about $30 million. No other UW campus exceeds about $2.5 million per year.

Critics might argue the four-year “comprehensive campuses” outside Madison and Milwaukee weren’t set up to conduct much research; they exist to teach. That’s true as far as it goes. But without the continued development of faculty through R&D and other paths, teaching can and will stagnate. Cutting-edge professors create value-added education – and a more valuable experience for the students.

The culture of “teaching only” can leave universities trapped in time. Consider the recent example of Beloit College, a distinguished private college known for its liberal arts. The Wisconsin Health and Educational Facilities Authority recently completed a $56.26 million bond issue to finance the college’s new Center for the Sciences, which will consolidate the college’s science programs into one building and enhance interdisciplinary research.

As the State Science and Technology Institute reported in its latest report, “The 2007 State New Economy Index,” states are investing more in university-based R&D foundations because it can capture federal and private grants and commercialize discoveries.

“Simply giving universities and colleges more money and hoping for the best is not enough,” the report cautioned, because “left to their own devices” most universities would settle for basic versus applied research. If the incentives are right, however, such research can align with the state’s larger economic interests.

Wisconsin is leaving money on the table by not fully developing its academic R&D potential. Let’s free more professors such as Eric Singsaas to do what they do best.

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