Each year, dozens of websites and companies across the world aim to rank universities through a slew of categories, from top 10 party schools to best liberal arts colleges. Most of these Buzzfeed-style listicles are nothing more than clickbait. Last week, however, UW-Madison discovered one less thing to be thankful for this holiday season: The university dropped from its spot as a top-five research institution for the first time in 45 years.
The National Science Foundation knocked UW-Madison from fourth to sixth place due to lower research expenditures in the 2015 fiscal year, when the university used just under $1.1 billion in annual expenditures for research across all fields, according to a UW-Madison release.
This fall in rankings is not an omen for the end of the world—$1.1 billion is a massive amount of money, especially at a university whose annual budget reaches to $2.9 billion. Ranking within the top 10 research universities should be something UW-Madison prides itself on.
What’s concerning about the most recent fall from grace is the trend facing UW-Madison researchers: a worrying lack of funds from both federal and state sources. The university might not have a large influence on gaining more federal funds, but now is the time for everyone—from students to administrators—to start lobbying for more state funding.
In January 2015, Gov. Scott Walker announced his latest biennial state budget, this time featuring a $300 million budget cut to the UW System. By the time the budget got approval in July 2015, the budget cut was lowered to $250 million. As the flagship university within the UW System, UW-Madison took about $80 million of the hit, with the rest spread across the other 13 colleges and 13 universities that make up the UW System.
While the 2015 budget cut to the System is an issue in and of itself, the current one is the myriad problems UW-Madison researchers could face with the next proposed budget from Walker.
Since 2012, the university’s research funding has only decreased, lowering by thousands of dollars each year, according to the National Science Foundation. Following this pattern, UW-Madison’s budget for research will only continue to drop, a cyclical, downward spiral that will only get worse.
Research at UW-Madison isn’t specific to just STEM fields—it studies crucial topics from international health equity to astrophysics. Without additional state funding, the hundreds of research centers at UW-Madison are at risk of limiting their studies or shutting down altogether. The data that UW-Madison researchers gather goes on to help the entire world, from the discovery of vitamins A and B in the early 1900s to the discovery a new homind species in 2015.
The importance of these advances in research means that now is the time for the state legislature to not cut the UW System’s budget again, and instead provide more funding for research—not just for the sake of a ranking, but for the sake of the state. The quality of work performed by researchers at UW-Madison is something the state government cannot put a discount price tag on.
What will UW-Madison advertise next school year on its prospective student brochures, that it’s the the number one party school in the country? Unless UW-Madison researchers want to start studying the correlation between football game start times and beer chugging speed, the state legislature needs to agree on at least one thing next term and fund research. Maybe if UW-Madison starts studying the effects of a lack of research funding, legislators will finally start paying attention.
Ellie is a junior majoring in journalism. How important is research to you? What changes do you think need to be made in the next budget? Please send all comments, questions and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.