UW-Madison’s research ranking matters

Last month, the National Science Foundation released its FY2016 Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey results.  This survey indicates how much each university spends on research and is commonly used as a measure of comparative research activity across campuses.

We were pleased to learn that UW–Madison retained its 6th place ranking among the nearly 900 institutions that were included.

Being in the top 10 is great and this ranking continues to affirm UW-Madison’s reputation as a research powerhouse. The HERD Survey reported that UW-Madison had nearly $1.16 billion in annual expenditures for research across all fields. Our federal expenditures increased represent a 6.3 percent increase from the previous fiscal year, or totaling nearly $34 million in additional spending, while our total research expenditures (including state and local government, business and nonprofit research funds) increased by 8.3 percent or $88 million. This ends a four-year decline in research expenditures.

However, this good news has to be taken with a grain of salt and not just because some are skeptical about rankings. UW–Madison’s research expenditures increased, but they also increased at many of our peer institutions. We also know that slight differences in reporting methodology can produce huge differences—both from one institution to another, and from one year to the next.

Nonetheless, rankings matter. High rankings strengthen our national reputation and that affects our ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. Rankings matter to our partners and our competitors for benchmarking purposes. The university’s research enterprise is a powerful economic engine as well as a creator of knowledge and innovation. The benefits are felt throughout the state and beyond.

Employers use rankings to identify universities where they want to recruit, so attending a high-ranking university can help in a competitive job market.

Rankings also hold up a mirror to ourselves and monitor our performance. Rankings influence our institutional decision making as we identify strategies that can raise our performance, and in the case of the HERD survey, help us rejoin the elite top five.

UW-Madison had been in the top five universities in in research spending every year since 1972, the year the survey started, until it dropped to 6th last year. That drop demonstrated that continual cuts to funding have consequences.

We are, and want to continue to be, a top-ranked university.

How do we do that in an increasingly tight and competitive funding environment?

Peer universities are investing in their faculty, and we need to do the same.  Fortunately, our efforts to generate new investment revenue for the university are beginning to show results. WARF has also expanded its support for UW–Madison. This has given us an opportunity to expand and improve support for faculty research on our campus.

UW–Madison’s efforts to invest in its faculty include new initiatives that provide seed funding for growing research on data science and on the microbiome. With the WARF-funded UW2020 grant competition, we hope to position our faculty to be more competitive when applying for federal and other extramural funding for their research. The first two rounds of UW2020 projects have already generated more than $11 million in new extramural funding.

Over the next three years, UW-Madison will also make a substantial investment in new cluster hires. This will help deepen the faculty’s interdisciplinary research strength in key areas of current and future research promise.

We have also recently announced a substantial (13.3 percent) increase in the stipends for graduate student TAs. Our graduate student salaries have become increasingly noncompetitive. Attracting stronger graduate students makes us a more attractive campus for top faculty as well.

Tabulating expenditures is one way to measure academic research activity and the HERD survey is just one indicator of our success as a research institution, but it’s one we take seriously. Our recent drop in these rankings has only spurred our efforts to strengthen the research enterprise at UW–Madison. We celebrate that we have secured our spot in the top 10, but we are not content to rest at 6th place.

Rebecca Blank, Chancellor

Marsha Mailick, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education