The Economic Madness of Robin Vos
His stance on “prioritizing” research could hurt our universities and the state economy.
Back in the 1980s, three economics professors, Robert Wilson of Stanford, Paul Milgrom of Northwestern and R. Preston McAfee (University of Texas), worked together conducting research on “game theory and auctions.” It was just the sort of seemingly trivial, silly-sounding research that critics of universities point to, but it became crucial in 1993, when Congress granted the Federal Communications Commission authority to auction portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The three profs helped design the auction, helping pave the way for the telecommunications revolution.
If Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) had his way, that sort of research probably wouldn’t be getting conducted at UW-Madison, one of the nation’s research powerhouses. “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever,” Vos said at a press conference. “So we want to try to have priorities that are focused on growing our economy.”
Vos was referring to research on the sleep habits of fruit flies and mice by Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, two highly regarded UW-Madison professors in the department of psychiatry, whose research gained them a grant of $1.6 million in the first year and up to $7.7 million over five years from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “We are trying to understand why we sleep, why we need to sleep,” Cirelli told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We have a lot of evidence already that the major mechanisms of the regulation of sleep are surprisingly similar in flies, in mice and in humans.”
I’m not a scientist, but it’s not hard to imagine the potential impact of such research. Could it lead to better rested and happier people who incidentally are more productive at work? Could it help astronauts in space, truck drivers handling long night shifts or air traffic controllers? Could it lead to the creation of a more effective sleeping pill or to other medical breakthroughs?
Or could this research — horror of horrors — simply help us better understand the world in which we live? In short, could it simply help accomplish what we have created our universities to do: to advance the state of learning and pass this knowledge on to students.
This is research that will bring as much as $7.7 million in federal funding to Wisconsin. Is Vos suggesting the university turn this down?
Such grants are what makes UW-Madison by far the state’s biggest research powerhouse and among a handful of the top research universities in the country. UW-Madison now spends about $1.2 billion on research, with about half of the money coming through federal grants. Does Vos want less of this money flowing into this state?
When experts talk about building a new economy in Wisconsin, they routinely note the state’s most important building block is all the UW research grants and resulting patents issued. This, for instance, led directly to the biotech industry in Madison. “If you look at the most prosperous regions in the United States — San Francisco, Boston, Chicago — it’s no surprise that nearly all of them are affiliated with research institutes,” David Krakauer, professor of genetics and director of Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, told the Cap Times. Has Vos somehow missed the drum beat of experts across the country saying you can’t build a new economy without high quality research universities?
Or does Vos understand this, but thinks legislators can better decide which research can lead to cutting edge applications and innovative new companies. If so, how? Would Vos, for instance, approve funding for the sort of wooly-headed professor who spends his time imagining what it would be like to ride a beam of light? That silly sounding thought experiment led to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and incidentally to the creation of a GPS systems, among other applications. In Wisconsin, Krakauer noted, the accidental discovery of the advantages of irradiating milk cured the world of rickets and led to the establishment of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which today has an endowment in excess of $2 billion.
If legislators are to set the criteria for what is acceptable research, what will be the message to wealthy alumni of UW-Madison like John and Tashia Morgridge, who just announced a $100 million grant to the university. They previously gave $100 million over several years to fund the Morgridge Institute for Research, which does a wide range of scientific research. Would they want to keep funding it if legislators were to decide what research is acceptable?
To state the obvious, the Morgridges haven’t given any money to the state legislature. But they have endowed UW faculty chairs in reading, computer science, economics, geoscience, business, pediatric nursing and health systems innovation, which seems to bespeak a tremendous faith in the broadest kind of academic learning. I doubt they’d be as interested in donating to a university that prioritizes only learning that helps grow the economy.
Vos’s comment arose from his concern that professors should be teaching more courses. That’s certainly an issue worth discussing, but attacking award-winning research is a poor way to address it. Moreover, if his goal is to get more bang for the state’s buck, the reality is that UW full professors earn about 15 percent or $18,000 less in annual salary than their peer group professors. They are “pretty much at the bottom of the Big Ten,” as University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has noted.
The percent of the UW System paid by the state has been dropping for about three decades. The state now pays for less than a quarter of the budget. Meanwhile the UW-Madison endowment — and private donations — have become an ever bigger part of how the state’s flagship institution funds itself. Those donations could decline drastically if it became a university which could only conduct research related to growing the economy. And in the long run, such restrictions would badly damage the economy Vos wants to help.
Vos’s Other Dumb Comment
The Assembly Speaker also embarrassed himself by criticizing Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry for supporting Democratic President Barack Obama. Referring to the Bucks owners hope for some state support for a new arena, Vos told the Business Journal: “If you’re looking to people for support, you certainly don’t want to poke people in the eye.”
One could imagine a more delicate approach, where Vos privately explains to the Bucks owners that legislators aren’t crazy about supporting an arena and Lasry publicly meeting Obama in Milwaukee just before the election doesn’t help the Assembly Speaker’s cause. But this public statement functions as a warning to all businesses that they dare not support Democrats for fear of reprisal.
Republicans were once the party of business, that supported business leaders across the board. But Walker’s extraordinary attacks on Trek Bicycle served notice that businesses that don’t fall in line will get trashed. Once again, this is likely to hurt the state’s effort to build a new economy, because many of the leaders of high tech, alternative energy and other such industries are Democrats. The message to them from Vos and Walker is anything but welcoming.