By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – As universities and colleges nationwide prepare for what could be a major competition for federal research dollars, partnerships that set themselves apart from the pack may stand the best chance to emerge on top.

In Wisconsin, look for public and private academic research centers – along with their industry partners – to focus on proposed National Science Foundation “tech hubs” where homegrown expertise and innovation is deepest. Biotechnology, genomics, certain aspects of computer science and advanced manufacturing are categories in which Wisconsin colleges and universities are historically strong.

Another emerging area is sustainability, which for purposes of whatever federal R&D program eventually passes Congress may combine advanced energy technologies, biomaterials, water technology, natural resource management and generally preparing for the effects of climate change. It is spread across public and private sources. Here are some examples:

  • At the UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, the engineering physics programs within the College of Engineering (nuclear fission and fusion), sustainable materials research, the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and a mix of agricultural and natural resources programs fall into that category.
  • The UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and the related Great Lakes Research Facility, the industry-led Water Council, the Global Water Center and various water research initiatives at Marquette University are part of the picture, as well as sustainable materials programs at both universities. The Medical College of Wisconsin conducts research and training in some aspects of disaster recovery.
  • Across the UW System, universities such as Stout, Superior, Parkside, Green Bay, River Falls and Stevens Point also conduct research in some sustainability field. In fact, it’s hard to find a campus that doesn’t offer some program.
  • Many of those colleges and universities work with private industry, which is increasingly driven by a combination of bottom-line and corporate citizenship reasons to improve sustainable practices. For many, it’s just good business to stay ahead of the curve.

The challenge for academic research centers in Wisconsin and elsewhere is to stand out in the crowd once Congress passes the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act or a related version. Assuming the NSF is the primary reviewer of tech hub proposals, it may likely pay more attention to ideas that involve collaborations with multiple partners than a host of stand-alone proposals.

That appears to be the approach being followed in Illinois, where the University of Illinois College of Engineering, IBM and state government unveiled plans for a Discovery Accelerator Institute on the Champaign-Urbana campus. Other campuses will likely be involved over time. The long-range goal in Illinois is spurring breakthroughs in areas such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, accelerated materials discovery and sustainability.

Wisconsin has the research assets to compete, whether on sustainability, genomics, quantum computing or other NSF hub topics. Academic R&D centers in Wisconsin raised and spent $1.66 billion from all sources, public and private, in a recent year charted by the NSF. That ranked Wisconsin 16th among all states, punching above its No. 20 weight in population.

The bulk of those dollars were raised and spent by the UW-Madison, which is 8th among all public and private universities nationally ($1.3 billion), but the Medical College of Wisconsin attracted $245 million, the UW-Milwaukee $54 million and Marquette University $38 million. Other four-year public and private colleges accounted for another $23 million.

Not every region or state will become home for a new research hub, as they are envisioned as a way for America to reinvest in ways not seen since the end of World War II, the dawn of the space age and the genomic research surge of the 1990s. Proposals that meet the international competition challenge by levering the right skills and partners will be the most likely winners.

The competition is one Wisconsin can win. With the right cooperation and a minimum of regional or institutional cooperation, the state can stand out in a talented crowd.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at