By Tom Still

MADISON – The first question asked by state legislators who must pass judgment on a major building project is, “How do we pay for it?” The second is, “How will it help Wisconsin – and my district?” Gov. Jim Doyle’s emerging plan for the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery is providing some straightforward, and exciting, answers.

Plans for the $375-million facility, to be built on the UW-Madison campus with half public money and half private gifts, will come before the state Building Commission Friday. For the first time, lawmakers will see how the Institute will weave together engineers, chemists, biologists, medical researchers, computer scientists and others into a world-class, interdisciplinary facility.

To be constructed in phases over 10 years, the Institute for Discovery will add about 450,000 square feet of much-needed research space in the 1200-1300 blocks of University Avenue, in the heart of the UW-Madison campus. One block to the east are existing Chemistry and Physics buildings. Directly north is Medical Sciences. To the west are new Genetics/Biotech and Biochemistry buildings, as well as Engineering. Just south of the Institute is Computer Sciences.

Quite literally, the Institute for Discovery will stand at the intersection of the 21st century’s most important interdisciplinary sciences. It will build on the state’s 100-year tradition of collaborative research – not only within the UW-Madison itself, but across other research institutions in Wisconsin.

Since the publication of “Vision 2020: A Model Wisconsin Economy” in late 2002, members of the Wisconsin Technology Council, among others, have insisted that the state’s technology future rests with interdisciplinary research. That is research which combines a variety of scientific fields – biology and information technology, for example, or engineering, nanotechnology and biotechnology – to develop new products, medicines, systems and processes.

The call for interdisciplinary research was repeated in the Tech Council’s 2004 report on the economic value of academic research and development in Wisconsin, and it has been a part of virtually every technology development plan put forth by the UW-Madison, other UW System campuses and private research centers such as the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The Institute for Discovery, first announced by Doyle in November 2004, is an embodiment of that interdisciplinary approach. It will ease a growing space problem that is already beginning to drive away quality researchers; it will lead to research that can be patented and licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation; and it will prompt creation of high-tech companies that will add jobs and economic benefits for decades to come.

The Institute for Discovery will also serve as an educational crossroads for people at varying study levels in the sciences. About 100,000 square feet will be set aside for undergraduate, graduate, short course and certificate programs, including evening and weekend programs for returning students seeking new careers in the biosciences. Industry will be able to take advantage of instructional sessions in nanotech, drug discovery, quality assurance and manufacturing processes. High school students exploring their futures will also use the facility.

The Institute will also consolidate work on human stem cells that is taking place at about 30 campus and off-campus locations. While the Institute for Discovery was not envisioned as a response to California’s $3 billion stem cell initiative, it will stand as one of the leading research centers of its type in the nation.

The Institute for Discovery continues past efforts — some historic, some more recent — to secure Wisconsin’s ability to solve some of the world’s most urgent problems while enhancing the prosperity of the state. Part of the public money is already in place, and private gifts will help cover half the bill. This is an investment the Legislature should make, not just because it’s good for the UW-Madison, but because it’s right for all of Wisconsin.

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