Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 12, 2006

Military research could enhance the reputation of UH

 •  To understand UARC, study the contract
 •  UARC would be a plus for UH

By Fujio Matsuda


What is the UARC?

The University Affiliated Research Center is a Navy-affiliated research institution that might initially bring the university $10 million a year over five years to pursue military-focused research in oceanography, astronomy and engineering.

What's next?

UH President David McClain will give his recommendation on the UARC to the Board of Regents during its scheduled meetings on Thursday and Friday. The board will then vote on the proposal, though no date has been set yet. You can register your opinion on the UARC by calling the Board of Regents office at 956-8213.

spacer spacer

The proposed University Affiliated Research Center is the focus of a vigorous and at times, acrimonious debate at the University of Hawai'i, which has spilled over into the public arena.

I have a few observations and some unsolicited recommendations to the university.

First, the UH is a land-grant university with a special relationship with the federal government. Public land-grant colleges were created by the Morrill Act of 1862 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

Before that, only private colleges and universities existed in the U.S., and higher education was not available to most ordinary families.

Each state was authorized to have one land-grant college, and its mission was to teach "agriculture and the mechanic arts." Two supplementary laws were passed to authorize the addition of the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service. Today, we use words like "outreach" and "technology transfer" to describe such activities.

An important corollary to the creation of the land-grant college system were the cooperative programs and funding established by the federal, state and local governments. This successful federal-state-local partnership has continued to this day. The mission of land-grant colleges is characterized by three main functions: teaching, research and outreach, sometimes called public service.

Why is this important? Land-grant universities have a responsibility to the public that goes beyond pursuit of academic excellence. This issue of the UARC should be considered in the light of UH's role as the only land-grant college serving this state.

The University of Hawai'i was established in 1907 as the College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts of the Territory of Hawai'i. Land-grant colleges have grown over time to become land-grant universities, reflecting the increasing complexity and technological advances of our society.

UH is the largest, most advanced high-technology center in Hawai'i. Numerous research institutes and laboratories have been added to the original Agricultural Experiment Station, such as the Institute for Astronomy and its Mauna Kea and Haleakala observatories, the Pacific Biomedical Research Center, the Institute for Biogenesis Research, the Cancer Research Center, the School of Ocean & Earth Sciences & Technology, the Undersea Research Laboratory, the Natural Energy Institute, the Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, the Institute of Marine Biology, the Maui Supercomputer Center, and many more.

Most, if not all, of these research organizations depend heavily on federal money. The Department of Defense is a major sponsor of many science- and technology-related research projects, almost all unclassified in nature.

So what is the problem with the UARC proposal? What is the UARC?

UARC may be thought of as an expedited funding mechanism for specially selected universities with special core competencies that meet Department of Defense needs. In our case, the Navy is the part of the DOD that is involved.

An official DOD management plan for UARC states that a UARC's role is to "provide or maintain essential engineering, research, and/or development capabilities through DOD contracts."

The same document states explicitly that the UARC Management Plan "does not usurp the authority of university boards of directors, trustees or any other chartered managing body." The invitation by the Navy to establish a UARC at the UH is recognition of our stature as a major research university with a distinguished faculty of engineering and science. We will be in excellent company: Johns Hopkins University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas-Austin, Utah State University and the University of Washington all have UARC contracts with the Navy.

Areas of core competence for UH identified by the Navy are: electro-optical sensor systems; ground-, airborne- and space-rated instruments and payload development; data compression/decompression and data visualization; phenomenology measurements, modeling and simulation; sensor modeling and simulation; small/micro satellite sensor systems. Under the contract, UH must be able to transition scientific data and technology to government and nongovernment agencies.

The scientific and technical areas cited above for UH are not in themselves classified in nature, although classified applications might well be imagined.

A cursory examination of the core competence designated for the other UARC institutions indicate that Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech and Penn State may have some significant weapons-related research, while Texas, Utah State and Washington have heavy emphasis on basic and applied research. Utah State has an added task "to disseminate knowledge ... to government agencies, contractors, academia and private industry ... and enhances the university educational programs through the expertise, resources and research programs of the laboratory." The last clause clearly implies that unclassified work is involved, and similar wording is contained in the proposed UH UARC.

This brings me to the crux of the controversy: classified research and academic freedom.

First, classified research. I am not aware of anyone who favors engaging in weapons development. The university, as a matter of policy, should forbid research on weapons development. End of discussion.

But how about classified research to counteract or neutralize the effects from such weapons? It could save lives and also may have other beneficial applications. If countermeasures against biological or chemical agents are involved, for example, the research may be classified.

Another example: If the process or device under development has beneficial peaceful uses, even if it is a classified military application, it might be an acceptable project. Or perhaps not. Developing or acquiring a technology that has peaceful uses should not be arbitrarily forgone solely because it will also have classified military applications.

The point is that dual-use technologies should not be disqualified out of hand because they may initially be classified.

A final thought: Experience shows that classified information, over time, becomes declassified. When that happens, the intrinsic science and technology escapes the shroud of secrecy and becomes available to the general public for peaceful uses.

If that original work was done at the UH, it would put the UH in the forefront of that technology development for peaceful uses.

I understand that all classified projects proposed will be reviewed by an independent committee for acceptance or rejection. The committee must be composed of individuals with security clearance, and that may create some problems in assembling a qualified independent committee. However, some safeguard would be appropriate and would better serve the university, the state and the United States than blanket prohibition of all classified work. I recommend that the guidelines for that committee include considerations for allowing research on dual-use technologies.

It is clearly unwarranted to assume that the Navy can require UH to perform classified research over the objections of the university. Asking for a clarification by the Navy or visiting current UARC universities should be a simple, direct way to get an answer without further internal debates on this point. In the unlikely event that the Navy would in fact insist on such a right, we should go no further with the UARC contract.

If any classified work is to be accepted, however, it should be conducted in a separate off-campus location to keep a physical separation between the project activities and the normal academic activities on the campus.

The proposal to use the Research and Training Revolving Fund to pay for the startup costs, estimated at $3.5 million, should be reconsidered. The plan would penalize present recipients of the fund, many of whom already are strapped for funds.

The liberal arts are the soul of our university, and should be treasured and kept healthy. A successful UARC program should contribute to such efforts, not impose a burden.

The UARC has the ability to pay for its own startup costs out of its overhead reimbursements that it will receive from the contracts.

Finally, academic freedom. It is a core value for the university, and must not be violated. To me, it means the ability of a faculty member to pursue any line of inquiry that he/she wishes, without interference from others in or out of the university. It is not an absolute right, however. It has to be coupled with academic responsibility to the students under his/her tutelage, to his/her colleagues, to the university and to the taxpayers.

It is curious to me, that in the name of academic freedom, some faculty would deny other willing and capable faculty and graduate students the opportunity to do important research that could result in enhancing the knowledge base of our society, not to mention providing a measure of recognition and reward for them and the university.

Classified research raises academic-freedom issues, I agree, and it is a sticking point. I understand, however, that some projects become classified because they apply unclassified methodology to classified data. Stripped of the classified data, the results are publishable, I'm told. However, we must assume that some projects will be classified in their entirety, and nothing will become public knowledge. That will affect the researcher's eligibility for promotion and tenure, for which publications in refereed journals are required. Those who are willing to undertake classified research must do so with the full knowledge and acceptance of the restrictions they face on their academic freedom. They can choose not to accept the restrictions and refuse the project.

I believe it is their choice to make.