WisBusiness.com: UW-Madison Scientists Hope for $1 Billion in Building Expansion

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON — Over the past dozen years, the UW-Madison campus has seen a building boom of more than $1.6 billion, with two-thirds of the funding coming from federal and other sources. Many of the new and renovated structures were for the sciences.

But campus officials are looking to keep the boom going, says Alan Fish – associate vice chancellor for facilities, planning and management.

If all goes as planned over the next eight years, another cool billion will be spent on new construction – the cornerstone of which will be the $375 million Institute for Discovery. Half of the project’s funding should come from private sources, Fish told a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon on Tuesday.

Fish said university leaders and Gov. Jim Doyle came up with the idea for the multi-disciplinary institute in direct response to California’s passage last November of Prop. 71, which will pump $3 billion into stem cell research over the next decade.

James Thomson, the UW-Madison molecular biologist who first isolated and reproduced human embryonic stem cells, is one of many researchers who would work at the institute. Some observers had feared he might be lured away, but Thomson has said he plans to stay in Madison. He and several colleagues recently started a company based at University Research Park on Madison’s west side.

Human embryonic stem cells can replicate indefinitely and give rise to any of 220 kinds of cells found in the body. Thomson and other scientists believe that such cells could profoundly change medicine, yielding treatments and cures for hundreds of diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Parkinson’s.

“In some ways, we are ahead of California because of the things we have already done on our campus,” Fish said. “But if we want to keep the faculty we have and stay a leader in the sciences, we need this facility.”

Fish said the institute, planned for the 1200 and 1300 blocks of University Avenue, will be a cluster of buildings connected by an atrium.

A majority of the space will be dedicated to research, though there also will be space for education and outreach, as well as business development and technology transfer.

The complex will be surrounded by a pod of other science buildings on the campus – making it ideally situated for its unique role.

“It will be at the intersection of disciplines,” he said. “Different teams will be able to come here and work on a variety of problems. It won’t be the domain of any one science. We will have labs without walls.”

In past decades, Fish said scientific advancements were made sequentially.

“Now it is happening simultaneously, and we will have tool makers and discoverers working side by side,” he said. “We won’t build this as a wet lab or a dry lab or a computer science lab.

“We will spend extra capital to make the buildings flexible so we can meet the needs of our projects and scientists,” he said.

The State Building Commission approved funding for the institute by a bipartisan 7-1 vote in March, but Fish said the Legislature still must endorse the plan. He said builders hope to break ground on the project by 2007.

In response to a question, Fish said he worries that there is an “anti-elitist” sentiment in the Legislature that is hostile to Madison and the university.

He said he was dismayed that he recently had to prepare a budget that cut $1.1 million from maintenance and operations – at the same time he is planning to add $1 billion in new buildings.

“We have not done as good a job as we could selling the importance of the research to the rest of the state economy,” he said.

“For the size and demographics of our state, the large amount of federal grants we receive (nearly $700 million last year) is an anomaly.”

If lost, that federal funding might be hard to regain, he said.

“And if that happens, and the operating budget isn’t sustained, we might not be able to keep our top researchers here.

“Ten years from now, we could look around and say, `What happened?”‘ he said.