Biosciences center headed for closure
The UH-Manoa facility will reassign resources to other research units
The University of Hawaii-Manoa administration plans to dissolve the Pacific Biosciences Research Center and shift the roughly 200 faculty, staff members and students to other research units.
Range of studies
Key functions of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center include:
» Bekesy Laboratory of Neurobiology
» Biological Electron Microscope Facility
» Biotechnology Program
» Conservation Research and Training Center
» Greenwood Molecular Biology Facility
» Hawaii Biodiversity and Mapping Program
» Hawaii Evolutionary Biology Program
» Kewalo Marine Laboratory
» Minority Access to Research Careers Program
» Molecular Endocrinology
» Pacific Region Diabetes Education program
» Computer Support Facility
"We thought about this quite awhile," Gary Ostrander, UH vice chancellor for research and graduate education and center interim director, said in an interview. "It's not coming as a surprise to anybody."
However, the center staff voiced disappointment.
"They're essentially trying to dismantle what has been a productive and useful unit to the university and state," said Marilyn Dunlap, center interim associate director. "We expect that it will need to go to the Board of Regents."
The center's executive committee expressed its concerns about Ostrander's plan to the UH Faculty Senate executive committee. Ostrander had spoken to the Senate committee and it's waiting for him to submit a written plan, Dunlap said.
Ostrander began talking to the Pacific Biosciences Research Center's faculty last December about closing the unit, saying he felt it didn't have enough focus, Dunlap said. In response, the faculty developed a plan for integrated work on biodiversity, she said.
The plan is based on the ahupua'a concept with studies from the mountain to the sea, she said, adding that the center's Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Kakaako would be part of it. The laboratory also is slated for closure in five years in a UH tradeoff with the Hawaii Community Development Authority for a Cancer Research Center site next to the medical school in Kakaako.
The center's executive committee presented the biodiversity plan to Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw, Ostrander and the faculty in March and held a symposium in May to showcase the biodiversity focus, Dunlap said.
Neither Hinshaw nor Ostrander commented on the plan, she said.
"It's not that we didn't like it," Ostrander said. "Some folks in PBRC are involved with biodiversity, but a significant number of folks would not fit into that." He said it would require "significant resources to do it at the level of research the university should be doing it" and money isn't available with tight budgets and funding cuts.
Formerly called Pacific Biomedical Research Center, the unit has had a succession of interim directors since Frederick C. Greenwood died in August 2000. He directed the center for 27 years and developed it into an internationally recognized institution.
The faculty voted to change the name from "biomedical" to "biosciences" in early 2005 after many clinical programs and faculty transferred to the medical school.
Ostrander said the remaining programs "are very diverse, everything from biomedical research and coral reefs to neuroscience. They don't really have a critical mass within the unit that has momentum going in any one direction."
That made it difficult to attract new leadership, Ostrander said, explaining that he led the faculty through a strategic planning exercise to try to address concerns of candidates for the director's job. He said he rounded up additional candidates and talked to all of them. When an impasse was reached with the last candidate in December, he said, that was "the end of the road."
Announcing the closure as the center's interim director in an Aug. 28 message to the faculty and staff, he said, "The need to partner historic strengths in PBRC with existing programs at UH-Manoa and to maximize our campus resources were primary considerations in this process."
Dunlap, manager-director of a PBRC transmission biological electron microscope facility - the only one of its kind in the state - said the center hasn't been allowed to hire for a number of years and has six vacant positions.
Kenneth Kaneshiro, director of the Conservation, Biological Research and Training Program and Hawaiian Evolutionary Biology Program, said, "PBRC has been a very strong program, but because of not filling positions and so forth, extramural funding and capacity have been reduced."
Because of the difficulty of recruiting a director to encompass PBRC's diverse programs, Kaneshiro said, "We all agreed on doing some aspect of biodiversity which could address conservation and environmental issues in the isle ecosystem."
PBRC has "huge potential to address global issues," he added.