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If everyone had the ability to spend $460,000 knowing they’d bring back $566 million, most would do it in a heartbeat.

That includes the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose leaders scoff at critics of its six-figure lobbying tab. According to a national watchdog organization’s report, UW squeezed into the top 25 in higher educational lobbying expenses in 2009.

Officials say most of the efforts are aimed at luring pricey federal research grants. That attracts high-quality faculty and brings prestige to a school, especially if it produces a scientific breakthrough.

Having champions in Washington supplements the university’s already strong research tradition, making it a favored landing spot for those grants. The Madison campus was awarded more than a half-billion dollars to conduct research last year.

Those who demand that government function more like a business should be thrilled. Higher education has figured out what commerce always knew. A cliche about a squeaky wheel comes to mind.

Take financial aid, for example. Like private schools in the state, the UW system prods Congress to make college more affordable. Studies show aid packages can’t keep up with tuition increases, making that a critical battle front.

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It’s good that groups like the Center for Responsive Politics shine a light on public universities’ spending habits once in a while. If that beam has illuminated something ugly that elicits a growl from those government watchdogs, it’s the inner workings of the political system — not UW.

The university didn’t program the machine. By using a few tuition and state tax dollars to hire lobbying firms to go after a bunch more federal tax dollars, it’s simply trying to avoid being crushed in the gears.

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