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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Reversing the Trend: Five Strategies to Improve UW-Madison’s Ranking in Research Expenditures


As we all know, last November UW-Madison fell out of the top five universities in research expenditures, according to the NSF’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey. UW-Madison had been ranked in the top five every year since the survey was established, nearly 45 years ago. The news was very disappointing but not altogether a surprise.

For several years, I have been concerned about a potential drop in rankings, as we have been falling in research expenditures since 2012. We are the only university in the top 10 with lower research expenditures than we had in 2011. My colleagues and I in the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education have analyzed the potential factors that contributed to this drop, and we have developed strategies to reverse it, with your help.

There are at least five factors that created a perfect storm for the decline. These reasons include salaries for faculty and staff that remain well below our peers, a declining faculty hiring rate, changing faculty demographics, a shrinking principal investigator pool, and increased faculty responsibilities that take time away from research.

Any of these on their own would likely not have caused us to fall out of the top five.  But when salaries have not been increasing while those of our peers have gone up; when the size of the UW-Madison faculty has been flat, fewer faculty have been hired than in the past, and most hires are at the assistant professor level (while most retirements are full professors); when UW-Madison policies (unlike those of many of our peers) do not permit the use of “research professor” title at all ranks to augment the pool of independent researchers; and when UW-Madison faculty have experienced an increase in administrative burdens and other responsibilities (as other positions on campus have been eliminated due to budget cuts), it’s no wonder that our research expenditures have declined.

All of these trends played out in the context of aggressive outside recruiting of some of our top-grant-getting faculty, which only magnified these effects.

Research expenditures is just one metric, but it results in reduced levels of the most important product of our research — the creation of new knowledge by UW-Madison. It also means fewer resources to fund undergraduate research opportunities, graduate students, postdocs, labs, and other research infrastructure.

So what can be done to address the problems that have contributed to UW-Madison’s drop in ranking?

We know that we need to grow our cohort of faculty and PIs. To do this, the campus is exploring whether there are the resources to restart the cluster hire program that was so successful in recruiting faculty in the past. We have also been contemplating proposing the idea of full-time research professors, recognizing that there are pros and cons of this idea.

In the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education (OVCRGE), we also have increased our support for interdisciplinary collaborative research so that PIs may better compete for larger grants. Innovative programs such as UW2020 support collaborative projects and position them to be more competitive for federal funding.

The OVCRGE is considering the creation of a grants development office to offer support to PIs in compiling and submitting large and complex grant proposals and meeting other grant-related needs.

Our office is working with the Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration, Laurent Heller, to prioritize laboratory remodeling projects that are needed to keep our research environment at the cutting edge.

Finally, we are committed to reducing administrative burdens to free up more time for conducting research. In this regard, I am working with Provost Sarah Mangelsdorf and Vice Chancellor Heller on a joint vice chancellors’ initiative to reduce research and academic administrative burden. More about this initiative, including ways that UW-Madison faculty, staff and students can contribute to it, will appear in an upcoming blog.

These are just a few of the many steps my office and others around campus are pursuing, but it will take all of us on campus to reduce and reverse the trend of dropping research rankings.

Nevertheless, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that UW-Madison is still a more than $1 billion a year research enterprise. We have a lot to be proud of. For example, just this past year, UW-Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center collaborated with the federal government to develop and launch a satellite that provides images of weather patterns every 30 seconds, contributing to more accurate and reliable severe weather outlooks and forecasts.

But the drop in research ranking reminds us how important it is to be vigilant and assess the current competitiveness for research funding, identify challenges, and take specific steps to ensure that UW-Madison maintains its leadership in research.

I look forward to hearing from you about your concerns and your ideas for what we can do to maintain the strong research standing that UW-Madison has long enjoyed. Please feel free to email us your ideas at

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All the best,


Marsha Mailick, Ph.D.

Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education

Vaughan Bascom and Elizabeth M. Boggs Professor