Read the column in WTN News here.

With help from people around the world, the National Academy of Sciences a few years back outlined 14 “grand challenges” for engineering in the 21st century… any one of which, if met, could improve how we live.

Wisconsin scientists, researchers and companies are positioned to help with those challenges, especially if existing public and private resources are efficiently aligned. As Congress and President Obama prepare for a bruising debate over how – and if – to avoid a tumble over the nation’s “fiscal cliff,” it makes sense to focus on established priorities.

Here’s what the Academy outlined as “grand challenges,” or barriers to a brighter future that could be cleared with the right science and innovation: Make solar energy affordable; provide energy from fusion; develop carbon sequestration methods; manage the nitrogen cycle; provide access to clean water; restore and improve urban infrastructure; advance health informatics; engineer better medicines; reverse-engineer the brain; prevent nuclear terror; secure cyberspace; enhance virtual reality; advance personalized learning, and; engineer the tools for scientific discovery.

In many ways, these challenges already align with emerging research centers and industry clusters in Wisconsin. As the state builds those clusters and centers, it should measure progress against those challenges. One reason is practical: Federal and private support for research will likely be driven by established priorities, especially in an era of tight budgets.

Here are just a few ways in which Wisconsin’s resources and research base are consistent with the National Academy’s grand challenges:

— Engineering physics programs at the UW-Madison are providing leadership in nuclear fission and fusion research, from safe disposal of waste to next-generation fission reactors to Helium-3 as a potential fusion source. The state is also a leader in emerging technologies for the production of Molybdenum 99. This medical isotope, which is used 50,000 times per day in the United States alone, will become in scarce supply as existing nuclear reactors age and eventually close. Two Wisconsin companies are pursuing alternatives that have attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy, which has among its goals preventing fissionable materials from falling into dangerous hands.
— Health informatics programs at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, the Marshfield Clinic and the UW-Madison, as well as major companies such as Epic Systems and Aurora Health Care, are combining R&D with clinical care.
— Energy research tied to the Wisconsin Energy Initiative, the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, among others, is examining a full range of energy solutions. Those include solar energy, a sector that has a significant private-sector footprint in Wisconsin.
— Research on carbon sequestration and the nitrogen cycle is being conducted through the UW-Madison, the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory and other UW System and private colleges. It parallels research interests in the state’s agricultural and forestry sectors.
— Milwaukee could become home to a National Institute of Freshwater Science and Technology, which would leverage the Milwaukee area’s natural strengths in research, environmental science and commercial applications. Clean water technology resources are not confined to the Milwaukee area, however, with significant research clusters in Madison and beyond.
— Nanotechnology research will become a source of developing tomorrow’s scientific tools of discovery, and Wisconsin has existing research and corporate strengths in that field. Many life sciences companies in Wisconsin are predominantly “toolkit” companies, meaning they make research tools as well as diagnostics.
— Wisconsin should press to become a cybersecurity leader through its academic institutions and related private consortia. The Wisconsin Security Research Consortium and its Wisconsin Information Security Center will help attract research related to cybersecurity, a growing national concern from federal as well as corporate perspectives.
— The UW-Madison Waisman Center has been a leader in research related to the brain and human development for nearly four decades, with a focus on the sources and potential cures for developmental disabilities as well as neurodegenerative diseases.
— The Morgridge Institute for Research within the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery has educational research among its core research areas, including methods that could enhance personal learning and virtual reality experiences.

Understanding the relationship between Wisconsin’s R&D strength and the “grand challenges” is important because it could affect how the state attracts public and private support.

Wisconsin continues to under-perform the nation when it comes to attracting most forms of federal funding and jobs. The state is 50th in federal employees as a percentage of the population and 48th in per capita federal spending. The number of federal employees in the state has fallen from 30,000 to 15,000 over the past decade. Wisconsin must compete more aggressively for opportunities to bring federal research facilities and contracts to the state.

This is not a call for deficit spending. It is a call to compete for grants, contracts and programs that rise to the level of bipartisan federal priorities. That includes merit-based research and development dollars, such as national laboratories or research centers that will help to meet the nation’s “grand challenges.”

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and Wisconsin Innovation Network.