UW-Madison’s reign in research

By Lisa Milter

Each year, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics compiles a rank of the best research universities in its Academic Institutions Profile. According to the NCSES, the top universities are selected based on number of earned doctorates, number of full-time graduate students, total federal obligations and total research and development expenditures. There are numerous qualified institutions that make it on this list, and among those consistently at the top is the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Currently named the nation’s number sixth university for volume of research, UW-Madison has come a long way.

From its humble beginnings in 1848, the founders of UW-Madison sought to simply establish a university at or near the seat of government, according to Natasha Kassulke, Manager of Strategic Communications at the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

The emphasis on research didn’t start to take hold until a few years after UW-Madison began to function. Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Marsha Mailick wrote in her blog, “UW-Madison affirmed the importance of research on campus by providing, for the first time, stipulated sums for research ($10,000 in 1914-15 and $15,000 in 1915-16).”

From that moment on, UW-Madison researchers, professors and students began making a series of groundbreaking discoveries. The UW-Madison Historical Timeline cites many of these useful innovations including the discovery of Vitamin B (1916), the College of Agriculture establishing Wisconsin’s first artificial-breeding program (1939), the discovery of the anticancer drug fluorouracil (early 1950s), the first bone marrow transplant being performed at UW Hospital using techniques developed at UW-Madison (1968). And the list goes on and on.

Biochemistry Professor Har Gobind Khorana and a research assistant use pipettes in the lab. Dr. Khorana taught at UW-Madison from 1960 to 1970 and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1968.

Kassulke said while the caliber of research has remained relatively high throughout the years, the nature of research has changed based on what is needed in order to improve quality of life, especially in medicine.

“The growing areas of research are ones related to an aging population and brain studies, so Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other medical conditions like resistance to antibiotic and wound treatment,” Kassulke said.

According to Kassulke, other areas receiving more funding recently involve large data management such as wireless technology, dark political campaigns, drug discoveries and global health and viruses such as influenza and Zika.

Ceremony for the newly established McArdle Cancer Research Building in 1962. Professors and faculty pictured at the event.

In addition to professors and faculty, student researchers are a driving force that contributes to UW-Madison’s high reputation. Professor of Food Engineering Rich Hartel said although research isn’t for every student, those that want to get research experience usually do so because they will go on to graduate school or do more research-focused work in the industry.

“Because of that, I have a really strong desire to make sure to try to continually improve our undergraduate program so that the students we graduate are the best in the field, and that would be my goal always,” Hartel said.

Hartel said the university certainly lives up to its status in terms of researchers and programs, but there are some worrisome signs.

“Unfortunately, research funding has gone down. Here in the food science department, we used to have 18 faculty members and now we have 11, and is that enough of a critical mass to cover 140 undergraduates? It’s just tougher and tougher,” Hartel said.

Mailick addressed this concern in her blog, where she referred to President Trump’s budget blueprint, released on March 16, which outlines his plans to reduce federal research funding.

“We find that the challenges facing our research community, and those across the country, are profound and very charged. They strike at federal funding, which is a cornerstone of research at UW-Madison, and potentially set the stage to significantly reduce our nation’s research infrastructure, putting us at a competitive worldwide disadvantage, and hobble our ability to do and be the best we can,” Mailick wrote.

However, UW-Madison has provided initiatives to combat the tightened federal funding and maintain the strong research standing it has enjoyed for many years.

The UW2020 program supports high-level, transformative research that requires critical studying and review prior to submission for funding. According to Mailick, during the 2015-2016 academic year, UW2020 funded 28 projects at a rate of $350,000 each. Mailick wrote she expects this program will support over 250 faculty and their students over a two-year time span.

UW-Madison junior Angela Brandl conducting research on vanilla Babcock ice cream for better quality production.

“Things have changed a lot in research, but you go where you need to go to get money to fund students. So funding sources continue to evolve, and we just do the best we can,” Hartel said.

Despite these obstacles, UW-Madison consistently has been able to demonstrate its status as a premier research institution. With a faculty a student body committed to research, UW-Madison will surely prevail.