(WKOW) - For the first time in 44 years UW-Madison is not a top-five research university and school administrators say state budget cuts are to blame.
Data released by the National Science Foundation shows UW-Madison slipped from fourth to sixth in annual expenditures for research across all fields during fiscal year 2015, spending just under $1.1 billion.
In a release put out Tuesday, UW officials said that still makes them a national powerhouse in terms of research, but that dropping out of the top five is disturbing.
"This is a highly competitive environment," said UW-Madison Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Marsha Mailick, the university's top research officer. "The numbers show that our faculty and staff are highly successful, although continued disinvestment by the state is having an impact on our ability to compete."
The universities ranking ahead of UW-Madison were Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, the University of California-San Francisco, and the University of California-San Diego.
Dairy farmer Mitch Breunig knows the real-world impact a loss of research dollars at UW-Madison would mean for him.
In 2015, Breunig noticed his heifers were calving an abnormal amount of twins. "We were having like an over ten percent twinning rate and a normal twinning rate is like five percent," said Breunig, who owns Mystic Valley Dairy Farm in western Dane County.
Since birthing twins slows down a heifer's milk production more than a single birth would, Breunig contacted Dr. Paul Fricke, a dairy cattle reproduction specialist at UW.
It just so happened Dr. Fricke was researching the causes of excess twinning at that time. "We applied his research here and immediately our twinning rate dropped quite a bit," Breunig said. "In fact, right now we're running like a three percent twinning rate."
Breunig believes a slip in the commitment to that type of research would have a negative effect on all Wisconsin dairy farmers..
For the actual researchers, the concern is just as great. Pathology Professor David O'Connor and his team of 27 researchers are working to develop vaccines for HIV/AIDS and Zika virus. They are all paid primarily with federal grant funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But, Dr. O'Connor said those federal funds and the size of his team are the result of UW's willingness to invest in him many years ago.
"In order to get faculty who are going to be competitive for those grants that are so hard to get, the University and the state need to invest in getting the best faculty here," said Dr. O'Connor, who said only about ten percent of grant applications to the NIH are successful.
But many believe that type of investment from UW-Madison is falling by the wayside, including administrators at other top-tier universities. "What that leads to is other universities contacting our faculty and suggesting - 'hey, maybe you should come to a seminar. Have you ever considered coming here instead?,'" said Dr. O'Connor.
And, once that happens enough, researchers like Dr. O'Connor believe the economic ripple effect will hit everyone. "And then all of the senior scientists and graduate students who are working here and contributing to the local economy no longer are doing that," said Dr. O'Connor.
And Breunig says the animals on his farm are living proof the research has other benefits."It's on the ground research that's done every day that directly affects how the cows in the State of Wisconsin - and actually the world - get fed," Breunig said.
Dr. O'Connor said Gov. Walker and Republican leaders in the state legislature need to realize the slope they've set up is starting to get slippery.
"It's very, very difficult to gain the stature and reputation that the University of Wisconsin-Madison has - but it's very easy to lose it," Dr. O'Connor said. "And, that's the message I would try to convey."
Despite a $250 million cut to the entire UW System in the 2015-17 state budget, Governor Walker has said he wants to increase funding in the next two year budget.
Geography professor and director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research Jack Williams says securing funds for work is an important measure of success and can help retain staff and bring in new faculty. "We watch really closely, these kind of metrics, of how well we're doing compared to our peers and our competitors, and total research dollars is one very important metric for us in terms of how we are doing," he says.
When the money doesn't come in, it's the student researchers that hurt the most."For our research scientists, they really are mostly funded by these outside research grants, so they're the most vulnerable to dips in research funding," Williams tells 27 News.
Others aren't as concerned about rankings. Dr. Paul Harari, professor & chair of the Department of Human Oncology, says ranking in the top 10 for research money spent is a highly-coveted position and still shows UW is a leading university in terms of research.
He says the UW Carbone Cancer Center just earned an $11 million award from the National Cancer Institute to support head and neck cancer research over the next five years.
"Fortunately the Carbone Cancer Center continues to do quite well with overall funding," Harari tells 27 News. "It's always a challenge, but we've had some gradual uptick in overall funding in the last two years, so we continue to be competitive and do quite well."