Opinion

Cardinal View: Research at UW still vital despite drop in rankings

UW-Madison dropped out of the top five for the first time in national research rankings since they began in 1972.

Image By: Bryce Richter

Presenting findings at a research conference is a dream for many students and faculty here at UW-Madison. However, for researchers such as Tom Bryan, that moment of pride for your hard work might be overshadowed by the recent drop in research rankings at your institution.

Every year since 1972, UW-Madison has been ranked one of the top five research institutions in the nation by the National Science Foundation. Research at UW-Madison and across the UW System is driven by the Wisconsin Idea, a philosophy that the boundaries of the work of the university is not bound to campus and that research conducted at the university will benefit Wisconsin residents. However, in 2015, UW-Madison dropped to the sixth spot for the first time since the inception of these rankings.

Research expenditures by UW-Madison dropped from the third highest in the nation in 2014 to the sixth highest in 2015 according to the NSF. That was a $40 million drop in the span of one year.

UW-Madison’s decreased expenditures send a scary message that research is being devalued. Not only is research integral for a modern society, but it directly helps improve the lives of people across the state, country and even the world.

This drop in research expenditures is coupled with President Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, which, according to The Washington Post, will cut the National Institute of Health’s federal funding by $6 billion, almost one fifth of their usual funding.

Not only is this budget cut frightening for federal scientific research, but it will also have a ripple effect on the work of smaller institutions as well. The NIH only uses a small portion percent of their annual budget for its own research. According the same Washington Post article, upwards of 80 percent of federal funding is given as grants to over 300,000 research facilities.

Being such a highly ranked research institution comes with its perks. It helps to attract and retain faculty who are at the forefront of their fields, according to Natasha Kassulke, manager of strategic communications for the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

“Faculty and students are looking for a place to work and pursue their higher education,” Kassulke said. “They are looking for the best and the brightest. As a high-ranking research institution, we have a better chance of recruiting and retaining excellent faculty and students.”

However, with the university spending fewer research dollars, this could have a disastrous effect on the future of UW’s impact on the state, and beyond.

“Research at the university has always been very important to solve problems and improve quality of life in the state of Wisconsin,” Kassulke said. “Less money leads to less progress, and ultimately can impact quality of life, environment and health of people across the state.”

For graduate students on campus, the impact of decreasing research dollars has already become apparent. According to Rob Lundgren, a researcher for UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, it’s now harder to get funding.

“I know there is some funding through Nelson that is now only available if you’re already a dissertator, or farther along in your studies, just because they have less to allocate for those sorts of purposes,” Lundgren said. “Obviously, traveling for research—or to present your research—is very important for overall work.”

Other researchers have noticed a drop in morale among their colleagues as a result of the declining research dollars.

“It affects overall pride in your institution,” Bryan, graduate student and also a researcher for the Nelson Institute, said. “When you read news articles about the UW falling in rankings, and these articles are national news, it makes you feel less proud to be part of an institution where the national argument is that we’re kind of floundering.”

Aside from morale, a drop in rankings and funding has a real impact on the effectiveness of of research at UW-Madison.

“This public presentation or awareness that research funding is declining can also inhibit the image of other people as to the research strength of the university,” Lundgren said. “It can even lead to less research opportunities or less funding in the future.”

Our university and its proud academics have pioneered things such as the Social Security Act, bone marrow matching systems and the discovery of Vitamins A and B. Research at UW-Madison has the potential to change lives, policies and laws, not just in the state of Wisconsin.

Academic curiosity and research directly propel the Wisconsin Idea, a philosophy that drives the UW System to create positive impact within our state, and also outside of its borders. If the university is to decrease the value and importance of research by decreasing research expenditure, it is going to lessen its impact.

“Here at UW-Madison, we are taking our research and applying it in a clinical setting, or even in a farmer’s field,” Kassulke said. “Currently our [research] funding is received in all 72 counties of Wisconsin. If that were to decrease, we may not be able to reach as far and wide.”

We do not want to decrease the people we reach, but increase our impact.

It is our moral obligation to stay true to the Wisconsin Idea and continue to make positive change for the people in our state, and to those beyond it. Research helps to maintain the core values of the Wisconsin Idea and bring positive change, and we cannot let budgetary constraints and political stances threaten that.

The people of Wisconsin have maintained a reputation of academic excellence, and we must continue that tradition.

Have you noticed any effects of the falling expenditures on research at UW-Madison? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to editorialboard@dailycardinal.com.

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