The latest figures on academic research spending in the United States provide, on the surface, some reassuring news for Wisconsin. For starters, the University of Wisconsin-Madison held its position as the nation’s fourth-largest research and development powerhouse.

Lurking under the waves, however, are currents that should send a chilling message to policy-makers who believe the state can continue to reduce support for higher education — especially basic research — without taking on water over time.

Read this full commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

The National Science Foundation reports annually on research and development spending by the nation’s colleges and universities, a total that includes 634 institutions that range from Big Ten and Ivy League schools to colleges most people couldn’t find short of an Internet search.

In 2014, the NSF reported last week, those 634 academic research centers raised and spent nearly $67.2 billion, up slightly from 2013 and continuing the upward trend in R&D spending that has been unbroken since at least 2005 and generally on track since the 1980s.

Wisconsin’s academic R&D spending in 2014 totaled $1.41 billion, the third straight year of decline since the peak of $1.48 billion in 2012. That happened despite the fact the UW-Madison clung to fourth place in the NSF rankings — behind Johns Hopkins, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.

The spending decline in Wisconsin was led by a loss of $15 million in research activity at UW-Madison, where reductions in state government support for the flagship campus are leading to faculty losses — and a migration of R&D grants that typically move with those researchers.

The Madison campus was third in the NSF rankings as recently as 2010, when some slippage began and the University of Washington in Seattle moved up a notch. In fact, Wisconsin fell from 13th among the 50 states in academic R&D spending to 14th in the same period — replaced by the state of Washington.

There are some bright spots. UW-Milwaukee improved in 2014 with $60.8 million in research spending, up from $56.6 million in 2013 and continuing a generally upward trend that began in the early 2000s. Marquette University has climbed from about $10.6 million in R&D spending in 2005 to $23.6 million in 2014, with significant increases in the past two years.

The Medical College of Wisconsin remains the state’s second-largest research center, with $199.7 million spent in 2014. That’s down from a high of $215.4 million in 2011 but up sharply from $143.5 million in 2005.

Throughout the UW System’s nondoctoral four-year campuses, the numbers are spotty. Campuses such as Stevens Point, La Crosse and Oshkosh have grown their research and development programs, according to the NSF data, but the Eau Claire and Green Bay campuses have lost ground. In fact, UW-Eau Claire’s R&D spending in 2014 was reported at half of its 2010 total.

Skeptics might respond, “So what? If a few academic labs in Wisconsin are less busy or even closed, how does that affect me?”

The answer starts with high-end jobs. The NSF counted 24,329 direct jobs tied to Wisconsin’s academic R&D in 2013, a figure that includes faculty, graduate students, laboratory technicians and support personnel alike. In 2014, the NSF reported 23,209 Wisconsin jobs — a decline of more than 1,000 skilled workers.

The NSF doesn’t measure indirect jobs, such as people who supply those labs or whose businesses might use their research or products. By some federal estimates, every $1 million in research spending creates 36 direct or indirect jobs. For Wisconsin, that equates to about 50,000 jobs overall.

Others might say, “Companies do a lot more R&D spending than colleges or universities, so why not rely on those private dollars for economic expansion?”

That’s true at the national level, where company R&D spending totaled about $323 billion in 2013, according to NSF figures, or nearly five times the latest academic R&D total. In Wisconsin, however, the ratio is less than 3 to 1 because industry R&D is proportionately smaller.

Wisconsin industry spent less than $4.3 billion on research in 2013, which ranked 21st in the nation compared with 14th for academic R&D spending. Industry R&D spending in Wisconsin was lower than that in any other Upper Midwest state with the exception of Iowa.

Academic research and development spending in Wisconsin is crucial to the state’s economy, directly and indirectly. It creates well-compensated jobs, attracts young talent and spurs creation of young companies. If state budget trends continue, there will be fewer dollars to support basic research — which, in turn, hurts Wisconsin’s ability to win merit-based federal and private grants.

The business community in Wisconsin should ask policy-makers to calm the seas around higher education funding, or risk sinking a research ship that helps keep the economy above water.