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Scientists fight for lab's future


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POSTED: Monday, September 21, 2009

Kewalo Marine scientists who have been helping the community save Maunalua Bay from alien species and pollution are trying now to save their own $5.5 million research program.

Closure of the University of Hawaii laboratory in the Pacific Biosciences Research Center was proposed by the administration last year and is among recent recommendations by an advisory committee to Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw to increase university efficiency.

UH agreed last year to give the oceanfront laboratory site to the Hawaii Community Development Authority in five years in exchange for a site next to the medical school in Kakaako for a new Cancer Research Center.

Gary Ostrander, UH vice chancellor for research and graduate education and PBRC interim director, said, “;I would have love to have that facility there if we had unlimited resources.”; But it's in bad shape and costs $500,000 a year just for utilities and non-faculty staffing, he said.

He said the four faculty members can be absorbed on the Manoa campus or at the Institute for Marine Biology at Coconut Island, and the Waikiki Aquarium also has seawater to hold marine animals for the scientists.

“;It hurts doing this,”; he said, “;but we've got tough decisions to make, given where the budget is going.”;

; The laboratory has 17 years left on its lease and HCDA “;is not condemning, requiring or taking back”; the site, said Executive Director Anthony Ching, explaining it's a “;business decision”; by UH.

“;However, I indicated I would work for them in terms of relocation and preserve the water line so it can be utilized, in terms of an easement.”; Ching said.

Kewalo Laboratory Director Mark Martindale said, “;Moving deeper into Kewalo Basin would be the best thing. We could keep our $3 million seawater system (piping in water from 1,000 feet offshore) and build a new facility.”;

Martindale said the lab has about $5.5 million in grants and is “;doing really well now in spite of the fact that we're getting no support whatever from our administration.”;

The researchers have won competitive grants for research ranging from early sensory systems in marine invertebrates that may provide clues to understanding human development and growth to the effects of pollutants on marine ecosystem health. Training grants support expanded science opportunities for native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

Martindale said the faculty is not allowed to write grant proposals extending beyond 2013 without Ostrander's permission. The lab also hasn't been allowed to hire in six years although it has two open faculty slots, he said.

“;That is hurting us. We can't recruit students. Nobody wants to come to the laboratory if they think we're going to close down.”;

Jonathan Martinez, 26, of Santa Fe, N.M., a third-year graduate student, said he came here in 2001 to attend UH because he wanted to study coral reef marine biology and “;this was the best place to study it.”;

His graduate work is funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fellowship that includes a full-time NOAA position.

He said closing the Kewalo laboratory “;would be devastating,”; adding, “;As an undergraduate, it would have been much too difficult to go to Coconut Island every day for school.”; Also, each location is good for different kinds of research, he said.

Robert Richmond, a renowned coral researcher and principal investigator at the Kewalo Lab, said it “;is uniquely positioned not only geographically but in terms of expertise for research that can't be done or isn't being done elsewhere. Losing such a valuable facility would be a loss for the university, state of Hawaii and entire Pacific region.”;

He and Martinez and others from the Kewalo laboratory have worked closely with Malama Maunalua, a community-based group trying to conserve and restore deteriorating Maunalua Bay.

“;They've contributed a tremendous amount to understanding the threats to Maunalua Bay and good management solutions,”; said Alyssa Miller, coordinator of the group.

Gerry Davis, assistant regional administrator in the Habitat Conservation Division for the Pacific Islands Regional Office, NOAA Fisheries Service, said “;Kewalo has provided a strong linkage between science, management and the community. ...

...”;I just don't understand. Why take a thriving facility that is making money and doing good research and providing a lot of opportunities for education, community service and management—why throw it away? Kewalo is a good partner, the way science should work.”;