WisBusiness: Backers see Institutes for Discovery as ‘cauldron’ for research

By Brian E. Clark


MADISON – When they are up and running in 20 months, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery should be a “cauldron of exciting interactions” between researchers, social scientists, artists, educators and the public, former UW-Madison Chancellor John D. Wiley said today.

“Ten years from now, I hope we’ll look back on a lot of great new stuff and say this is where it started,” said Wiley, who is the interim director of the public half of the new research center that backers hope will be a model of interdisciplinary and collaborative science.

Wiley was joined at a Wisconsin Innovation Network luncheon by Carl Gulbrandsen, WARF’s managing director and board chairman for the Morgridge Institute for Research (MIR), the private half of the $150 million, 165,000-square-foot WID project. It is going up on the 1300 block of University Avenue between Randall Avenue and Orchard Street and is expected to open in the fall of 2010.

Wiley said he expects breakthroughs to come from “interfaces between interdisciplinary clusters” of scientists who are rubbing shoulders not only in their labs but in the new building’s public spaces. The institutes will foster new scientific approaches integrating biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technologies.

Gulbrandsen said MIR – as a private entity – will be more nimble than its public half and have a special emphasis on helping discoveries make their way into the marketplace to become jobs, companies and products. But he said there will be no physical demarcation between the public and private sides of WID.

James Thomson, the famed UW-Madison stem cell scientist and founder of several firms, is MIR’s director of regenerative biology. Sangtae Kim, who once chaired the UW-Madison chemical engineering department and later worked with several pharmaceutical companies, is MIR’s executive director.

WID’s construction is being funded by a $50 million donation from UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, plus $50 million from WARF and another $50 million from the state.

Wiley said there is a special need for research centers like WID because most corporations, which used to spend tens of millions of dollars on research and development, have dropped those divisions.

And if UW-Madison, one of the country’s top research universities, wants to keep hauling in grants — it received more than $1 billion last year from the federal government — the university can’t rest on its laurels, he said.

“It is easy to slip back, but the institutes will help UW stay competitive in getting research funds,” he said.

“The future economy is being born in university research labs,” he said. “The emphasis has shifted from private to public. It is very important and — contrary to what some legislators say — it doesn’t get in the way of teaching.”

Gulbrandsen acknowledged that the state’s economy is in much worse shape than when Gov. Jim Doyle first proposed the projects in 2004, but said he hoped the state’s taxpayers “still think this is a good idea.”

And Wiley made a special point of noting that Doyle has included money in the next budget to fund the centers.

In response to a question from the audience, Gulbrandsen said he believes that UW-Madison is in a “sweet spot” to get some of the increased funding that the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation will receive under President Obama’s economic stimulus program.

Wiley also praised Obama for his appointments.

“This is not an anti-science administration, as far as I can tell,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in this White House will be telling scientists to rewrite their reports” for political reasons.

In a lighter moment, Wiley said the moniker “’former UW-Madison chancellor’ is the best title I’ve ever had.”

Wiley, who is also teaching public policy courses as an education professor and lecturing at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, also said he hoped his harsh criticism of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce last year figured into the business group’s decision not to participate in this year’s high court race.

“I hope so,” he said. “But they don’t tell me.”