By Tom Still 


MADISON – Tammy Baldwin readily admits she has a soft spot for academic researchers and the federal dollars that often help to support them. Her grandfather was a UW-Madison biochemist who worked at the Institute for Enzyme Research for decades. 


So it’s no surprise that Wisconsin’s first-term U.S. senator would spend time thinking about how her work on Senate committees dealing with health, education, energy and homeland security might intersect with academic researchers – and the ideas they often bring to the marketplace. 


That was the theme of Baldwin’s visit to the UW-Madison campus and University Research Park during a broader state swing tied to the Senate’s August break. It provided a revealing glimpse at some of the challenges facing academic research, and its valuable byproducts, in an era of federal spending cuts. 


Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here.


A meeting with the scientific and business team of Isomark at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery was a case study of how basic research can blossom into technologies that can be used to diagnose and treat human health problems, if only the support is there long enough to get the idea to market maturity. 


Isomark is commercializing a UW-licensed technology that detects critical infections, such as sepsis and ventilator-associated pneumonia, which can be acquired in hospital intensive-care units. Because Medicare no longer reimburses for hospital-acquired infections and other costs are rising, hospitals themselves need an early warning system to head off trouble before it gets out of hand. Isomark’s technology focuses on changes in carbon isotopes in exhaled carbon dioxide, which can be tracked non-invasively using only a sample of the patient’s breath. 


Test results so far are extremely encouraging, but the hard part for the company is only beginning.


Having raised money through federal merit-based grants, private investors and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation to get this far, Isomark now faces a long regulatory approval process. The Food and Drug Administration must be persuaded the device is safe and effective, and other federal regulators will determine if it saves enough money to become eligible for a federal reimbursement program. 


“We have a great team and a great product,” said Joe Kremer, Isomark’s chief executive officer, so meeting that burden of regulatory proof is not insurmountable. “But the money needed to get there is a hurdle to be overcome.” 


That’s where Baldwin enters the picture. Her first bill, introduced in July, is the Small Business Innovation Act of 2013. It would authorize the federal Small Business Administration to set up a fund to match with private dollars invested in young biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and clean energy companies. The fund would give preference to startups that have already received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health or the 31-year-old Small Business Innovation Research Foundation. 


It remains to be seen if the bill moves ahead in Washington’s polarized political environment, where even more basic funding for scientific research is at risk. Automatic federal budget cuts mean most merit-based grant programs will be reduced – federal earmarks are already a thing of the past – and that could mean big trouble over time for major research universities such as the UW-Madison. 


Baldwin told the campus gathering she’s also worried about what that funding crunch will mean for the next generation of researchers, especially if they think they’re entering a dead-end profession. “The career path for a young scientist is challenging,” she said. 


There are legitimate policy disagreements over how far the federal government should go in supporting academic research and development, or the companies that stem from such R&D. But federal investment in such research has been a reality for a century or more – and it has produced enormous results for human health and the economy. Curbing federal deficits is one thing; turning back the R&D clock by decades is quite another. 


By the way, had Baldwin lost her 2012 race against Tommy Thompson, the former Republican governor and U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, the philosophical approach in this Senate seat would not have been all that different. Thompson has been an ardent supporter of smart R&D investments, as well. As for Wisconsin’s second senator, Republican Ron Johnson, it may be time for him to end his radio silence on the issue.