By Tom Still

MADISON – It’s not every day that Wisconsin has a chance to attract a major federal laboratory. It has been more than 30 years since the National Wildlife Health Center was established in Madison and nearly 100 years since the University of Wisconsin was selected over the University of Michigan as the site for the National Forest Products Laboratory. Both labs have contributed immensely to the world’s knowledge of wildlife diseases and forests – as well as the state’s economy.

Early in 2007, Wisconsin will learn whether it’s on the short list for another major federal project: the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. Like the wildlife and forest products labs, this center would be a near-perfect match with the state’s tradition of natural resources stewardship, agriculture and life sciences research.

The UW-Madison’s Kegonsa Research Facility near Stoughton has already made the cut from 29 proposed sites to 14 for the NBAF, where foreign and domestic animal pathogens that plague farmers – and sometimes humans – would be isolated and studied. The center would be built on 40 acres in the Dane County town of Dunn and eventually employ as many as 400 people, most of them researchers and technologists.

Managed jointly by the federal Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, the NBAF would be have a Level 4 biosafety security rating, the highest available. It would replace the aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center near Long Island, N.Y., where this type of work has been conducted since the 1950s. 

Wisconsin is a national leader, and has been so for generations, in the types of research that would take place in a National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. At the UW-Madison alone, the breadth of interdisciplinary research expertise that could be brought to bear is as expansive – if not more so – as any place in the United States. In fact, Wisconsin and the UW System has a history, dating back to the early 19th century, of being on the cutting edge of research involving plant and animal genetics, zoonotic pathogens and public health solutions.
The UW-Madison’s assets include the School of Veterinary Medicine, among the top 10 in the nation. The School of Medicine and Public Health was the home of the late Howard Temin, just one in the long line of University of Wisconsin Nobel laureates. The School of Pharmacy houses the new Lenor Zeeh Pharmaceutical Experiment station. The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is host to the UW Biotechnology Center and the Genome Center of Wisconsin, where breakthroughs such as the sequencing of the E.coli genome took place. The UW-Madison campus also boasts one of the nation’s only biotrons, the Institute for Molecular Virology, the Molecular and Environmental Toxicology Center, the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, the Department of Food Microbiology and Toxicology and experienced centers in biomedical engineering, nanotechnology and molecular biology.
On the planning boards: The UW Institute for Discovery, a $375-million project that will serve as a national model for interdisciplinary research. 
Wisconsin already has or can attract the skilled workforce needed to staff such a facility. Because Wisconsin’s agricultural roots run deep, many researchers and scientists here are closely tied to the land through cultural and familial ties. The state is also home to architectural, engineering and construction firms that are among the nation’s best in designing and building secure, tech-based facilities.

Most important, Wisconsin has a long tradition of hosting national-level research facilities or facilities linked to national defense. In the Madison area alone, the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant, the forest products and wildlife labs (site of extensive testing for avian flu), the new National Stem Cell Bank, and most recently, the Institute for Influenza Viral Research are all prime examples.
The political competition for this facility will be fierce once the list of 14 is shaved to a relative handful. Other states understand the importance of landing federal research centers, especially those that fit with existing research and commercial strengths. There will be local concerns, primarily about safety, but the record is clear: This center would be among the safest in the world, and it’s a match with Wisconsin’s farming tradition.

Few, if any, states are better situated than Wisconsin to serve as the site for the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility. It is the right fit with the state’s agricultural and research traditions, it would benefit Wisconsin farmers, and it will help the nation and the world. If Wisconsin makes this short list, let’s not miss the opportunity.

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