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Column: Regents focus on impact of UW System research

Every day across Wisconsin’s public universities, researchers are on the verge of the next big breakthrough.

From the prestigious Research I designation earned by UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee to the purposeful research at the 11 comprehensive universities, the University of Wisconsin System’s research infrastructure is robust and remarkable.

“We want to make sure the public – taxpayers, business owners, community leaders, state lawmakers, and others – understand the incredible scope, depth, and impact of the basic and applied research that is being performed on our campuses every day,” said University of Wisconsin System President Ray Cross. “This work is enshrined in state statute and is the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.”

Cross and the UW System Board of Regents heard presentations from three university research teams at the Board of Regents meeting in Madison on Thursday, then engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about UW research and its importance to local communities, the state of Wisconsin, and the world.

The UW’s research enterprise is important locally because university research labs employ thousands of people and offer opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to get experience conducting valuable research. It’s important to the state because of the numerous spin-off companies created thanks to faculty discoveries. It’s important to the world because research discoveries in Wisconsin in the last century have led to life-saving and life-changing moments across the globe – the kind of work that improves the human condition.

“UW research is incredibly valuable,” said Regent President Andrew S. Petersen. “We want to ask some fundamental questions: How can we enhance that value? Can we form new strategic research partnerships? Are there new sources of funding for our research enterprise?”

The presentations Thursday included:

  • The UW-Madison Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute’s study known as the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP). which is one of the largest and longest-running Alzheimer’s disease family history studies in the world, with more than 1,500 participants since 2001.
  • Research on UW-Milwaukee efforts at the Milwaukee Institute for Drug Discovery to develop new drugs that treat pain without opioids, attack brain cancer more effectively, treat cancer with fewer side effects, and control asthma without steroids.
  • A partnership between UW Oshkosh’s Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and WiSys to help three students market the Bee Shield, an invention by a UW-Superior faculty member and a retired engineer colleague to prevent wind from getting into beehives in the winter, thereby reducing bee mortality rates.

“Our universities are powerful innovation hubs that foster startups, business incubators, and technology accelerators,” Cross said. “Moreover, academic research enhances students’ skills and employability. The hands-on experience of solving challenges through research can provide a real competitive advantage in finding high-paying jobs. The presentations we heard represent a small sample of the incredible research at Wisconsin institutions.”

Noting a new study showing that the United States has dropped to 28th among major industrialized countries in government funding for university research as a share of gross domestic product, the regents discussed ways to increase public and private sector funding of research.

The importance of undergraduate research was another topic of discussion. On March 11, the UW System hosts the 17th annual Research in the Rotunda in which students from across the state display their research projects at the state Capitol.

Courtesy UW-System