Sunday, May 22, 2005

Pentagon gives
UH research a boost

Plans for a Navy research center
stirred protests, but military grants
fund a wide array of projects

At his lab in Manoa, physicist John Madey is working to build a laser that can "sniff" the air at long distances to find hidden weapons of mass destruction.

University of Hawaii Across campus, food chemist Alvin Huang is exploring the germ-fighting clout of Hawaiian vanilla.

What these University of Hawaii researchers have in common is money from the Defense Department.

A proposal to create a Navy research center at the UH sparked campus protests this month, but Pentagon funding for research at the university has already increased fivefold in the last five years -- driven largely by the war on terrorism and Air Force support of the Maui supercomputer.

Defense Department grants for UH research and training hit $52.3 million last year and $55.8 million in 2003, up from $10.3 million in the year 2000, according to the UH Office of Research Services.

Kevin Hanaoka, director of the office, attributes the spike to more money flowing into the Maui High Performance Computing Center, an Air Force research laboratory in Kihei managed by the University of Hawaii. The supercomputer took in $23.9 million from the Air Force last fiscal year and $22.8 million in 2003, up from nothing in 2000.

The center, linked to space sensors atop Haleakala, provides more than 9 million hours of computing time a year to civilian researchers and military agencies.

James Gaines, interim UH vice president for research, estimates that UH funding from all government sources has doubled in the last five years, with the military accounting for a larger share because their contracts tend to be large.

The Pan-STARRS space survey program, run by the UH Institute for Astronomy, received $13.7 million from the Air Force in 2004 and $9.6 million the year before, up from nothing in 2002. Pan-STARRS, which stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, uses four small telescopes on Haleakala to survey the sky to find asteroids and comets that might pose a danger to Earth.

The UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology receives about $10 million a year from the Defense Department, some of it to pay for operations of the Honolulu-based Navy research vessel Kilo Moana.

Gary Ostrander, vice chancellor for research and graduate education at UH-Manoa, said that with competition high for funding from such traditional sources as the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institutes of Health, more researchers have been tailoring their projects to Pentagon interests to keep them afloat.

Communications and language researchers also are benefiting from more defense funds.

"The war on terror has made this an environment in which there are dollars for research in the social sciences in addition to the traditional military applications," Ostrander said. "I think you're seeing that across the country."

In the UH-Manoa Department of Sociology, political scientist Sun-Ki Chai is in the beginning stages of a defense subcontract to develop a computer program that factors cultural differences into communications, cooperation and decision-making.

"The lab is part of a larger program to study culture systematically, using models which will allow us to predict the effects of culture on individual behavior and the behavior of teams," said Chai.

Reducing the richness and variety of human culture to a computer program is no small challenge, Chai concedes.

"Nobody else in the world is trying to do this -- and maybe for good reason," he said. "There are a lot of hurdles to get past. It is very new and unusual stuff and I emphasize that Hawaii is the ideal place to study this because it is almost a laboratory for multicultural interaction."

LED BY strong research programs in ocean sciences, engineering and astronomy, the UH has had a long, close association with the Pentagon. In fact, those ties are cited in support of a UH application to host a Navy research facility -- a proposal that sparked protests and an occupation of Bachman Hall this month at UH-Manoa.

Opponents charge that the proposed University Affiliated Research Center, or UARC, would involve secret research dictated by the Navy rather than traditional grants awarded to investigative proposals from the faculty.

Interim UH President David McClain has promised to take protesters' concerns into consideration as the university weighs the pros and cons of what would be called the Applied Research Laboratory.

Regardless of what happens with the Navy proposal, it's clear that the Defense Department already is setting the tone for more Hawaii research efforts.

Madey, a researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, has a defense grant to work on "hyperspectral imaging" -- using long-range lasers to detect the chemical signatures of nuclear or chemical weapons. At first, Madey's lab focused on nuclear munitions, but has expanded since 9/11.

"The unconventional threat has grown, so we have shifted over to simpler things," he said.

Huang says his work for the Pentagon is geared toward developing food supplies for troops that contain healthy natural chemicals. "Hawaii is the only place in the United States that can produce commercial-grade vanilla," he says. "We have proved that Hawaii vanilla is as good as those from outside the U.S."

Other UH researchers have Pentagon money to study robot submarines, underwater acoustics, storms, waves, muscle control in sharks, the management of seafloor wreckage, ways to keep barnacles off hulls and to find buried mines; bioterrorism preparedness, wireless communications, solar radiation and optical sensors to track missiles.

Some UH researchers worry that the Pentagon is supporting more research into specific applications -- perhaps relating to improved weapons performance -- to the detriment of more basic research that brings about revolutionary discoveries.

Madey said he would like to see continued emphasis on fundamental "blue sky ideas" that spin off into the private sector and keep U.S. industry vibrant.

"A robust commitment to research involves arrangements to fund novel ideas before their relevance has been established," he said. "You need a place where the malcontents and misfits can do their work and let time go by and see if it is going to change the world."

Paul Nachtigall, who works with marine mammals in sonar experiments at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, also emphasizes the need for basic research, but said he views the UARC proposal as simply another big defense contract.

"It would make it easier for some people to take care of the bureaucracy of doing research," he said. "I don't see it as a panacea. I don't see it as evil. It's just an easier way to get work done that is already being done."

University of Hawaii

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