The case for an 'Unclassified' UARC
The University of Hawaii's interim president offers a revised plan for Navy research
THE University Affiliated Research Center provisionally approved by the Board of Regents in November 2004 proposes to engage -- in a sole-source fashion via "task orders" -- University of Hawaii scientists' expertise in astronomy, oceanography, advanced electro-optical systems and communications systems. Task order sponsors could be the Navy or any other federal agency -- including agencies whose primary focus is not defense-related matters, such as the National Science Foundation.
The center would be funded for three years, with an option for renewal for an additional two years, for a total of five years. It has been estimated that a maximum of $10 million per year in task orders could be funded; one estimate suggests some 15 percent might be classified work.
This highly visible proposal is neither as flawed as its opponents assert, nor is it as promising as its supporters claim. Initial efforts to introduce it on the Manoa campus were top-down -- and ham-handed. Last fall, under the leadership of Manoa Chancellor Denise Konan, the proposal received a full review by all major campus constituencies.
In December Chancellor Konan recommended that the proposed UARC contract not be approved, and suggested that UARC-related research be conducted off campus. In January the Board of Regents heard six hours of testimony on the matter.
A new proposal
Last Thursday, at the Board of Regents meeting, I sustained Konan's recommendation, and in its place proposed that a University Affiliated Research Center revised in concept be considered by the board. This center would be administratively attached to the UH system, not to the Manoa campus, in the tradition of a number of other grants and contracts managed by the UH System. These include our P-20 initiative funded by the Kellogg Foundation, our EPSCoR biodiversity grant funded by the National Science Foundation and the Maui High Performance Computing Center, funded by the United States Air Force.
In my proposal, this UARC would perform no classified task orders during its first three years of operation. And it would retain the option to terminate a task order should the research involved become classified after the task order begins. This approach mimics Stanford University's approach to research it finds is classified in midstream, and gives UH additional flexibility, over and above current practice of moving projects off campus, in this area.
During the third year, UH would assess how the UARC has performed. If the UARC received a favorable evaluation, the UH would invite the Navy to exercise its option for renewal of the contract for an additional two years. If the UARC did not pass the UH evaluation, or if it did and the Navy elected not to exercise its option, UH would discontinue the UARC.
Costs, benefits and risks
As other universities know well, UARCs are financially attractive constructs. The university's proceeds from a contract vehicle like the UARC are about 25 percent higher than under normal research contracts. One reason is that some direct costs (including certain personnel costs) are reimbursed; in the typical contract only indirect costs can be recovered. The UARC contract also permits UH to charge a fee for its services, unlike in normal research contracts.
Whether these superior returns are justified by the start-up costs of a UARC (much of which would later be reimbursable), by the additional administrative burden and expense, and by the risks involved is a matter of judgment.
Assessment of these risks involves a question of balance between the rights of individual researchers to pursue topics that interest them, and the concerns of some on the campus -- perhaps even a majority -- that all must engage in activities congruent with the majority's particular perception of the university's mission, values and strategic plan.
Because of the inherent diversity and need for freedom of inquiry, which in my view does and should characterize the academy, I tend to be biased in favor of measures to support the individual scholar no matter how popular -- or even more importantly, how unpopular -- his or her research interests.
Assessment of these risks also involves a question of the capability of our institution to respond to the additional administrative responsibility that would come with the establishment of such a facility, a responsibility that would be all the greater if classified research were to be included in the task orders. We've shown that we can do this in the case of the Maui High Performance Computing Center, so we have a track record. Still, a UARC is a new kind of organization for us.
Finally, as I have listened to and read testimony, and read other expressions of concern about the UARC, I've concluded that assessment of these risks must involve more directly the question of classified research. Board of Regents policy characterizes UH's primary mission as "to provide environments (emphasis mine) in which faculty and students can discover, examine critically, preserve and transmit the knowledge, wisdom and values that will help ensure the survival of the present and future generations with improvement in the quality of life."
Perceived as sinister
Classified research, by its very nature, impedes the creation of the environments described above. While this also is true of the restrictions on publication and in other areas currently accepted by UH researchers receiving a variety of nonclassified contracts, many in the public perceive classified work as more sinister, since defense issues often are involved. Should a research project become classified in midstream, it is current UH practice to move the project to an off-campus location, thus "restoring" the campus environment.
My proposal proscribing classified research simplifies the administration of the UARC during its initial years and addresses the "environments" issue profiled above. Faculty can continue to pursue defense-related research and funding, and can continue to perform naval research, activities the chancellor supports, and which would contribute to the diversification of our economy. UARC contracts would be much like other grants and contracts, with the exception that they would be sole-sourced, and our costs would be more generously reimbursed.
David McClain is interim president of the 10-campus University of Hawaii system.