By Tom Still

MADISON – No one is claiming Wisconsin invented “interdisciplinary research,” which is a fancy way of describing scientists from diverse fields such as chemistry, microbiology and computer science taking the time to work together.

Nor is anyone asserting the UW-Madison is the first to create a biomedical research facility that has a public as well as a private side.

But with a $50-million stroke of their family pen, John and Tashia Morgridge have helped launch a Wisconsin institution the likes of which cannot be found outside California, Massachusetts and Florida. It is a gift that will pay dividends to the state for years to come.

The Morgridges, who grew up in Wauwatosa and made their mark in the Silicon Valley of California, announced the biggest gift in UW history this week in creating the Morgridge Institute for Research. It will be the private, non-profit side of an interdisciplinary research facility called the Institutes for Discovery, which will be built on the UW-Madison campus beginning in late 2007.

The gift from the Morgridges will be matched by $50 million from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the 80-year-old patenting and licensing affiliate of the UW-Madison, and $50 million from the state of Wisconsin to build the first phase of the Institutes of Discovery on the 1300 block of Madison’s University Avenue. Over time, the $375-million project will include the 1200 block as well.

Within a quick walk of the Institutes will be UW-Madison’s existing schools or colleges of Engineering, Computer Sciences, Chemistry, Physics, Medical Sciences, Genetics and Biotechnology, Biochemistry and Microbial Sciences. The objectives of the Institutes will be foster new approaches to biological and medical problems by leveraging all of those disciplines, accelerating the pace of discovery and pushing those ideas toward clinical application in the UW Medical School’s Interdisciplinary Research Complex.

What might the Institutes produce? Perhaps computer scientists will help geneticists unlock the cure for a disease. Perhaps stem cell researchers will be aided by their colleagues in biochemistry. Or maybe nanotechnology professors will provide the platform for bioengineered drugs that are safer and more effective.

Whatever the outcome, it will take place because scientists are working together in a collaborative environment that breaks them out of academic “silos” that tend to isolate researchers rather than congregate them.

It is not an especially new idea. The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is the world’s largest, private, non-profit biomedical research facility. It can trace its roots to a gift by Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924 and has been pioneering interdisciplinary research for more than a decade. It is affiliated with UC-Santa Barbara. In 2003, The Scripps Research Institute opened a similar facility in Palm Beach County, Fla.

The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research is a private affiliate of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology. Created in 1982 by a gift from businessman Jack Whitehead, it took a more interdisciplinary direction with a 2003 gift that created the Eli and Edythe Broad Institute within Whitehead.

The James H. Clark Center for Biomedical Engineering and Sciences is a hub for interdisciplinary research at Stanford University, and was founded with a gift from a Silicon Valley businessman. The Bio-X project at Stanford has been encouraging interdisciplinary research since 1998.

This small club now includes the Morgridges, who helped build Cisco Systems into a company with a $100-billion market value. John Morgridge is still chairman of the Cisco board.

“Great science is occurring in the Midwest, and it’s time people know it,” said Morgridge during a Monday news conference announcing his gift. He went on to describe Cisco’s work with Stanford research centers and the need for industry-academic collaborations to enhance American competitiveness.

Undoubtedly, some Wisconsin legislator will portray the creation of the private Morgridge Institute for Research as a plot to obscure something from public view. It is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is a way to more quickly pull the UW’s best technology into the marketplace, where it can help people and pay back public investment.

Again, that’s not a new idea. But it’s a proven idea that could keep Wisconsin on the research map.

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