University of Hawaii approves military lab
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By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — After almost three years of controversy and angry exchanges, the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents last night approved plans for a UH Applied Research Laboratory affiliated with the Navy.
The issue was rancorous to the end, with the board's discussion cut off when UH-Manoa Hawaiian Studies student Kelii Collier began shouting from the audience that the Navy cannot be trusted to clean up after itself.
"Pearl Harbor is poisoned, and our people fish out of that every day," Collier shouted. "Don't tell me they will be responsible."
After repeatedly trying to convince Collier and others in the audience to quiet down so the regents could explain their position on the issue, board chairwoman Kitty Lagareta ended the discussion and called for a vote shortly before 7 p.m.
The plan for the Applied Research Laboratory was approved by a vote of 7-1, with one abstention.
Opponents of the research laboratory called "Shame on you!" as the regents left the stage at the UH-Hilo Performing Arts Center after the vote.
The lone vote against the research partnership came from regent James Haynes, a Native Hawaiian who recalled his experiences planting trees as part of the Kaho'olawe reforestation effort.
Haynes said the Navy reneged on its commitment to clean up the island it had used for target practice, and faced no consequences for that decision. Because of that history, he said he could not in good conscience vote to support a UH partnership with the Navy.
UH President David McClain recommended that the regents authorize creation of the Applied Research Laboratory, which would be located away from the Manoa campus but would be administratively attached to UH.
McClain told the regents that much of the emotion expressed during the long day of testimony stemmed from the war in Iraq and the "unfortunate history" of U.S. military operations in Hawai'i.
He argued in favor of preserving the academic freedom of researchers who may choose to work on Applied Research Laboratory projects, and inclusiveness of the university is another issue.
"Part of our society includes the military, however their behavior has been over the years," he said.
McClain said the university proceeds from contracts like the military-affiliated research unit are about 25 percent higher than normal research contracts, making the proposal "a financially attractive construct."
During the first three years the university would accept no classified "task orders" from the Navy or other federal entities, and university officials estimate it would handle up to $10 million per year in that time.
University officials estimate the startup costs for the ARL will be about $1 million, but that money can be recouped within a year through fees and charges to the contracts.
The proposal is to fund the project for three years, with an option for renewal for an additional two years.
About two dozen demonstrators holding signs opposing the research center started the day by marching into the performing arts center shortly before the meeting was to begin on the center stage, chanting "Save UH!" and "Stop UARC!"
About 250 people gathered for the meeting, and about three dozen people testified on the issue, with the crowd in the auditorium mostly opposed to the new center. Spectators applauded critics of the plan, and sometimes mocked supporters of the project.
Kalani Makekau-Whittaker, associate director of the Native Hawaiian Student Center in Hilo, rejected the idea that the regents have some sort of obligation to seize any opportunity to maximize research revenue for the university system.
"To try and promote this contract because of the money — blood money, that is — that it will bring in to the university is offensive," Makekau-Whittaker said. "I do not want to be, nor do I want to see other good university employees pimped in such a way."
Collier reminded the regents that an earlier proposal for a University Affiliated Research Center triggered a 2005 student sit-in at McClain's office.
That protest happened because "you wouldn't listen to us when we went through your process," Collier said.
Supporters of the contract included Nimr Tamimi, vice president of the Kanoelehua Industrial Area Association and chairman of the Hilo association's government affairs committee.
Tamimi said the Big Island has some of the most economically depressed areas in the state, and predicted the Applied Research Laboratory will benefit Big Island residents by producing better-paying jobs and diversifying the economy.
If not for research — usually government-funded research — there would be no telephones, televisions, weather forecasting or other modern conveniences, he said.
"Please support research, please support small business, please support the Applied Research Laboratory for a brighter future for our children and our people," Tamimi said.
In a written report to the regents on the proposal, McClain said an informational meeting on UARC in January 2006 demonstrated that "the overwhelming majority of the 100 most productive researchers on the Manoa campus supported the ARL." A poll by the UH Association of Research Investigators "reflected a similar preference," McClain wrote.
UH already has 1,600 military and federal research projects worth $400 million, including five that are classified, UH officials say.
McClain said UH had 142 contracts from the Department of Defense in the past year worth a total of $65 million.
Much of the testimony yesterday against the proposal reflected a general mistrust of the military and its history of training and operations within and outside Hawai'i.
Makekau-Whittaker said the project means the university is contemplating participating in "murders" by the U.S. military around the world, and compared that with the willingness of Nazi Adolf Eichmann to exterminate Jews to advance his own career.
Ryan Kanaka'ole, speaking on behalf of the independent UH-Hilo student group Mau Pono, cited the military's "rap sheet" in the islands, a record he said includes bombing Kaho'olawe, dumping ordnance and chemicals in the ocean, and showing "disrespect" for cultural sites and endangered species in Makua and Pohakuloa.
"This university is supposed to be for the education and benefit of our community," he said. "It is not supposed to be a for-profit business, bent on economic gain."
Others said the Applied Research Laboratory was being mischaracterized by critics who implied it would be devoted exclusively to weapons research.
That isn't so, said Don Thomas, professor of geochemistry and director of the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes.
Research at UH attracts tens of millions of dollars that benefit the larger university community by supporting things such as broadband access and the research library that is used by many on campus, he said.
Thomas also urged the regents to protect the academic freedom of UH researchers, who are overwhelmingly in favor of the Applied Research Laboratory. Thomas asked the board to "protect their ability to choose what research endeavors they choose to pursue."
The regents also received 66 pieces of written testimony on the subject, with 26 opposed to the Applied Research Laboratory, and 42 in support.
Groups on record as being opposed to the research laboratory or the UARC that was previously proposed include the Associated Students of the University of Hawai'i; University of Hawai'i-Hilo Student Association; Kuali'i Council, the UH-Manoa Faculty Senate, the Pukoa Council, and the Faculty Senate of Hawaii Community College.
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.