Big Ideas at UW-Madison

The university is an innovation powerhouse
Big Ideas at UW-Madison
Photo by Paulius Musteikis

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a big-idea powerhouse.

Throughout its 169-year history, and particularly from 1972 to 2016, it has ranked in the top five research universities in the country–not by accident, but by a meticulously cultivated ecosystem fueled by some of the brightest brains, a uniquely cooperative spirit, collaborative infrastructure, innovative partnerships and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit. (Last year, for the first time in more than four decades, it slipped to number six, after sustaining several years of state funding cuts since 2001.) UW-Madison remains a $15 billion economic engine for the state, generating $24 for every Wisconsin taxpayer dollar spent and attracting $890 millIon a year in competitive federal grants alone.

“If Wisconsin did not have a research university of the scope and magnitude and reputation of UW, we would not be able to retain what is increasingly advanced manufacturing in this state, advanced agricultural work, the whole growth of the biotech industry here, the growth of startup companies,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank says, and that’s kind of the point: It’s a critical symbiotic relationship between the state and the university. UW-Madison isn’t cultivating big ideas in a small bubble; all of Wisconsin–maybe even the entire globe–fits inside.

The list of big ideas catalyzed at UW-Madison could wrap itself around campus end to end, and would include so many findings: that embryonic stem cells could be isolated and cultured, eventually harnessed for groundbreaking therapies; that a spinning camera could produce satellite imagery used to chart the weather from space; that brains are so flexible they could actually be manipulated through meditation. UW-Madison created the nation’s first department of genetics and the world’s first academic department of wildlife management, and discovered the first-ever vitamin (A, in 1913, followed quickly by B-complex in 1916). Countless eureka moments translate into real-life applications, each starting with a big idea–and, at the crux, the biggest idea of all.

“When I came here I was very struck at how much virtually every person on campus knew the phrase ‘Wisconsin Idea,'” says Blank. “It’s clearly a very living thing here.”

The Wisconsin Idea is essentially this: that discoveries made at UW schools should be used to better the lives of all the state’s residents. Its genesis is often traced to a line in Charles Van Hise’s 1905 speech–“I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state”–but it was hardly a formal policy cemented that day. “Idea” is perhaps the perfect word for the mosaic of thoughts, events, tradition and spirit forged over the 112 years since that fateful speech. Bits and pieces grace the university’s mission, but it means something a little bit different to everyone, and that meaning continues to evolve. The Wisconsin Idea has become a household phrase, and though the state’s citizens can’t always define it, they understand it enough to rebel when it’s threatened–as Gov. Scott Walker discovered in 2015, when his attempt to significantly revise it in the proposed budget was met with swift and convincing collective dissent.”But I really believe it should be a two-way street,” says Erik Iverson, managing director of the 92-year-old Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.Big Ideas at UW-Madison

WARF serves as the technology transfer arm of the university, helping researchers patent and license their discoveries into the marketplace, then funneling proceeds back in the form of grants. Like the UW Foundation, WARF is an independent entity separate from the university; it costs taxpayers nothing, and both foundations combined pumped about $370 million into UW-Madison in the 2015-2016 fiscal year in gifts to academic and research-related programs and activities.

“The system shouldn’t simply reach out beyond the campus borders throughout the state,” says Iverson. “The state’s ideas and issues and solutions to problems should also come back into the system.” In other words, if you’re a Wisconsin farmer, doctor, teacher or business owner with a problem, you should be able to seek big-idea solutions at UW-Madison. That’s already happening in countless initiatives across campus, as this story exemplifies.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with the bold innovations burbling out of UW-Madison, whether at research centers like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, University Research Park and the Waisman Center, or in the classrooms and labs of the schools of medicine and public health, agricultural and life sciences, or college of engineering. It’s even harder to quantify the ongoing, exponential value of those discoveries; the ripple effects that extend generations, beg more questions, reveal new inventions. What’s easier to measure is that the work matters.

“American universities in general have been the go-to place for the best and brightest students around the world, and we’re facing a lot of competition,” says Blank. “When we lessen the dollars we’re putting into research, and when we limit the access of people around the world to these places, which makes them less of a global, vibrant community, our universities simply become lower quality. And we cannot assume that U.S. universities will always be on top. We have to always be working on this.”

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

There are ideas, and then there are big ideas. So many come from the labs, classrooms and workshops at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but some allow us to see a different, more advanced world. Powered by the Wisconsin idea, here are six outstanding innovations having real-time impact that reaches far beyond our state’s borders.

Using plant leaves as scaffolding to grow human stem cells

Harnessing technology to combat loneliness and addiction

Helping lactating women who take medication for depression through a discovery in dairy cows

Traveling in a tube at the speed of sound

Measuring the dark matter that surrounds us

Growing human skin for burn victims