New Resources for Discovery

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Dean Kate VandenBosch

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a mighty force for research by many measures, from its life-changing discoveries to its global reputation for scientific excellence. Yet another measure is the extent to which the university sustains its research enterprise.

In recent years, successive cuts at the state level have reduced UW’s overall budget, making the prioritization of core activities a major challenge. This hinders our ability to attract research funding, and the impact of this trend can be seen in national rankings. Between 1972 and 2014, the National Science Foundation (NSF) consistently ranked UW–Madison among the top five institutions in research expenditures. In 2015, following a steady four-year decline in those numbers, the university slipped to sixth place.

In response, Chancellor Rebecca Blank has called for a significant reinvestment in UW in a variety of ways. This means greater legislative and private support, but it also means the campus needs to find new, stable revenue streams. To boost our research endeavors, campus leadership has developed new seed funding mechanisms. These programs are designed to help our scientists do the arduous preliminary work that is necessary for securing major grants from large government agencies and nonprofits.

Today, we seem to be on the right track. In 2016, UW–Madison’s research expenditures rose, and the university’s NSF ranking held steady. Another encouraging fact: faculty, staff, and students at CALS are making the most of these new opportunities.

For example, the UW2020 Initiative was established in 2015 to fund high-risk, high-impact projects. Selected proposals receive an average award of $300,000 for two years, and CALS projects have been among the winners in all three rounds. In fact, in 2017, one third of the awardees hailed from CALS, with projects in areas ranging from artificial intelligence in dairy farm management to the role of the human gut microbiome in health and disease.

Speaking of the microbiome, UW’s Microbiome Initiative was established in 2017 with goals similar to that of UW2020. But it was also designed to encourage interdisciplinary work in an area where UW has a high concentration of expertise. Twelve of the 13 microbiome proposals selected for funding involve CALS faculty, many of them as principal investigators. These projects, covering topics such as how gut microbes might influence Alzheimer’s disease and the role of the tomato’s microbiome in pathogen resistance, have the potential to make transformative discoveries.

UW2020 and the Microbiome Initiative are both made possible by funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and other sources. But university funds will support yet another program to encourage interdisciplinary work that will make UW–Madison more competitive in garnering extramural research support. Over the next three to five years, around 70 faculty will be hired in 20 different strategic “clusters” — groups of scholars, chosen for their shared research interests and specialties, who can collaborate and pool resources from where they are situated in departments across campus. A campus committee is now reviewing proposals for these clusters, and many touch upon areas of expertise that can be found in abundance at CALS. I look forward to updating you on this initiative in the future.

I know that our exceptional researchers will continue to experience great success with these programs. Their efforts will keep CALS in the vanguard of the agricultural and life sciences while helping UW–Madison retain its traditional place as a premier research university. I am excited for what the future holds.