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Gail Robertson

UW-Madison neuroscience professor and researcher Gail Robertson stands in her lab.

Continuing to cut higher education funding will hurt Wisconsin’s economy by reducing research and innovation on college campuses, according to a new report from the state organization that advises lawmakers on science and technology.

The Wisconsin Technology Council argues that legislators should instead make it a priority to increase state support for the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Technical College systems.

Their campuses act as “economic engines” and “talent factories” in their communities, council president Tom Still said, and are a boon to Wisconsin’s economy.

But funding cuts have gone past the point of making colleges and universities more efficient and now threaten their quality, which is one of the state’s competitive advantages, the council wrote in “The Value of Higher Education to Wisconsin’s Economy,” the report it released Monday.

Lawmakers have reduced funding for the UW System in five of the last six state budgets, including a $250 million cut in the 2015-17 budget.

“If the slide in higher education funding effort continues, the academic (research and development) infrastructure in Wisconsin could deteriorate,” the council wrote. “Further cuts would harm access, affect overall quality and erode economic competitiveness.”

Still said the organization was not recommending lawmakers increase UW and technical college system funding by a specific amount, but more generally said they must “invest wisely in higher education.”

“Higher education in Wisconsin is a huge economic driver, and it’s important for policymakers not to lose sight of that,” Still said.

The council is made up of a bipartisan group of business and education officials, several of whom come from UW and the technical colleges. UW System President Ray Cross is a member, as is James Zylstra, the Wisconsin Technical College System’s vice president for finance.

Along with its recommendations for higher education funding, the council’s report says colleges and universities could make several changes to improve their relationships with local businesses.

Still said colleges should clarify their conflict-of-interest rules for professors and researchers, and recommended more institutions follow the lead of UW-Madison’s Office of Corporate Relations, to make it easier for businesses to connect with campuses.

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Nico Savidge is the higher education reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.