By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said Wednesday morning at a State Building Commission subcommittee meeting that he knew he’d look like a “nut” if he voted against accepting $100 million in gifts to fund the first phase of the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery.
But Fitzgerald did it anyway.
He cast the only nay on the state Building Commission against the UW-Madison public/private interdisciplinary research centers yesterday afternoon. He said he was not satisfied with answers to his questions on personnel issues and how the institutes would be built and run. The tally was 7-1.
Before other Republican legislators signed on, however, they got Gov. Jim Doyle and fellow Democrats on the panel to agree to add an auditor for additional oversight to the project, which will have $50 million in state funding – a third of the total.
Fitzgerald said he appreciated the $50 million gift from UW-Madison grads Tashia and John Morgridge and another $50 million from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
But he said he was uncomfortable with the concept that UW faculty and staff could be working at the private Morgridge Institute, which will be directly across from the public institute.
He also said many people in Wisconsin do not want scientists working on any kind of stem cell research.
“They fear that if it’s stem cells today, it might be human cloning tomorrow,” he said.
Doyle, however, said he was pleased the institutes would be close to each other to foster cooperation and allow faculty to create fledgling companies at the private research center.
And he and WARF leaders pledged that the university would continue to follow federal guidelines on the study of stem cells with public funds.
“We have to, we have too much to lose if we don’t,” said WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen.
Gulbrandsen also said his private non-profit organization, which patents discoveries of UW-Madison scientists, can use the institutes to turn research into jobs here in Wisconsin – rather than Boston, San Diego or San Francisco.
At one point in the discussion, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, accused the Republicans of nit-picking not only how the architect and construction manager would be selected, but the operation of the institutes.
Fitzgerald also said he did not like the strings that are attached to gifts – in this case the requirement that WARF manage the building process.
Both Fitzgerald and Rep. Debi Towns, R-Janesville, reminded their fellow legislators that the project had $50 million in public money and that it was their duty to make sure those funds were spent properly.
In the end, Towns voted to support the institutes, which should open in 2009 and produce – backers predict – cutting-edge research and new companies for Wisconsin.
“This will be a great addition to UW-Madison,” Gulbrandsen said after the Building Commission’s decision.
“You will be proud of what we do,” he said.
Doyle also praised the vote.
“I am pleased that the Building Commission… did not let politics get in the way of creating jobs and curing disease,” he said.
“The Institutes for Discovery will bring the finest researchers in the world to Wisconsin, where they will develop new approaches and applications for their discoveries.”
Doyle proposed the institutes in 2004 as part of an effort to solidify the Badger State’s position as a leader in biotechnology and stem-cell research. He announced the $100 million in gifts earlier this month.
The first phase of the project will be built on the 1300 block of University Avenue. Ultimately, the project will stretch east into the 1200 block and have a total investment of more than $50 million.
Construction on the first part of the project will start next year and should be finished by 2009.
University officials said research at the institutes will focus on a wide range of critical biological and medical issues, from attacking diseases to advancing regenerative medicine.
The public half will function as an interactive hub, bringing together engineers, biologists, chemists, statisticians, informatics researchers, and medical scientists together with the latest technologies and research support.
The private institute, to be named the Morgridge Institute for Research, will provide a flexible environment for researchers to collaborate with industry and pursue commercial applications.