Republican and Democratic legislators are backing a bill designed to make it easier for University of Wisconsin employees to privately fund and commercialize their research.
Rep. Dave Murphy, R-Greenville, chair of the Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee, and former Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, chair of the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges and a member of the Joint Finance Committee, ordered the drafting of a bill that would provide a new exemption from a state prohibition on public employees entering into contracts in which they have a private financial interest.
Harsdorf resigned from the Legislature on Nov. 10 to become secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
The bill would replace a 45-day review by the UW System Board of Regents — now typically required under an existing exemption for researchers who want to contract with a private entity in which they have an interest — with a plan to manage potential conflicts of interest.
The bill also changes the definition of a "research company" in the law to include nonprofits as well as businesses and allow UW campuses to contract with nonprofit organizations.
A draft of the bill is being circulated for co-sponsors.
The proposed legislation has the support of PROFS, the lobbying organization for UW-Madison faculty.
“Wisconsin law is out of step with the modern research and business worlds because it includes an overly cumbersome and lengthy process for allowing companies and other entities to contract with the university when a faculty or staff member has an interest in the company,” PROFS said in a news release.
Existing law hinders the UW’s ability to move quickly to bring in research and development funds from businesses and other private entities, PROFS said. The law has forced research companies connected to UW-Madison researchers to take clinical trials to other states, for example.
And top UW-Madison faculty have been recruited to universities where they can work more collaboratively with businesses and other funding entities, the lobbying group said.
Murphy and Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison, sent a letter recommending the legislation to Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development, Commerce and Local Government; and Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who serves on the Law Revision Committee.
The state representatives pointed to substantial losses in fundig they attributed to the antiquated conflict of interest procedures.
UW-Madison in 2015 received $42.8 million less in research and development funding from private businesses that the average of the other top-five research institutions, and $55.5 million less than the average funding from nonprofit organizations, they said.
Under the bill, "Wisconsin's conflect of interest regulations for university employees will still be consistent with those of other public universities, while removing the impediments currently in place that suppress Wisconsin small business creation," they said.
Jack O’Meara, PROFS lobbyist, said that the bipartisan bill was the product of a UW-Madison entrepreneurial work group.