As funding for higher education continues to fall, the University of Hawai'i hopes that a recently launched Department of Homeland Security research center will bolster the college's bottom line.
The National Center for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security, which officially opened on Oct. 7, is one of five "centers of excellence" created by DHS to study border security, explosives detection, port security and emergency management. University of Hawaii Mnoa was one of 11 universities selected in February to host a portion of one of the research centers."Investments in long-term, basic research are vital for the future of homeland security," said DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology Jay M. Cohen, who was present at the institute's opening ceremony. "These colleges and universities will provide scientific expertise, high-quality resources and independent thought, all of which are valuable to securing America."Under an agreement reached between the DHS and university officials, UH Mnoa is eligible to receive a grant of up to $2 million per year over the next four to six years, for a potential windfall of $12 million. But opponents say the funding isn't worth expanding already-present military based research at Mnoa.In partnership with scientists at the University of Alaska, the University of Puerto Rico and New Jersey's National Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce and Coastal Environments, the homeland security center's researchers will consider ways to safeguard infrastructure located in island and extreme environmental conditions against natural and man-made emergencies,said research director Roy Wilkens."The basic scientific investigations that the National Center for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security will be performing are a natural complement to existing earth science and engineering programs at UH Mnoa," Wilkens said. "These studies will eventually provide critical data to first responders in times of emergency and enhance our general understanding of the ocean and atmospheric environment around the Hawaiian Islands, Puerto Rico and Alaska."Six faculty members from UH's Department of Engineering and School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology will spearhead the center's initial research, which Wilkens says will benefit both the university and the state."Our observational expertise will save lives and help protect the environment," Wilkens said. "As for UH, without the prospect of involvement in high-level science, UH would lose its best and brightest, both students and faculty."Defense research expandingHomeland security contracts were not the only lucrative defense-related grants given to UH researchers in recent weeks. On Sept. 24, two weeks before the opening of the homeland security research center, UH's Applied Research Laboratory was awarded an $850,000 task order by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Wai'anae Ordnance Reef Remedial Investigation Project.Approved by the Naval Sea Systems Command, the order instructs scientists to examine the effect of seasonal variations in water quality and sediment composition upon the threat posed by discarded World War II munitions off the O'ahu's Wai'anae Coast. The survey will be conducted over the course of a yearto rectify possible data gaps in a 2006 study performed by the Department of Defense and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration."It is important that we examine the impacts from the discarded military munitions at Ordnance Reef to determine the most appropriate course of action," said U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye in a written release. "I have no doubt that the UH lab will undertake its tasks with professionalism and with environmental and cultural sensitivity."The study will involve both private and community partnerships, said UH Vice President for Research Jim Gaines, and could generate funding for imilar projects in the future."The Army Corps of Engineers is committed to understanding the problems created by discarded munitions and potential impacts on the health of the people of Hawai'i," Gaines said. "This project could lead to more clean-up operations of the discarded munitions by local businesses, which would have its own positive effect on the economy."Researchers for the Applied Research Laboratory, a Navy-sponsored science and technology laboratory, will complete additional sampling, biotic-substance testing and risk-assessment analysis as part of their review.Critics unconvincedWhile the National Center for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security and Applied Research Laboratory enjoy broad support among university administrators, many members of the UH community remain opposed to the two research centers, arguing that prospective financial gains are outweighed by the threat posed to core educational values."The National Center for Island, Maritime and Extreme Environment Security and Applied Research Laboratory are increasing and intensifying the militarization of UH," said Kyle Kajihiro, program director for the American Friends Service Committee. "This is part of a trend nationwide, in which universities are becoming agents of the military-industrial complex, instead of independent institutions dedicated to expanding and sharing knowledge."Michael D'Andrea, a professor of counselor education at UH Mnoa, agrees, noting that both the Mnoa Faculty Senate and the Associated Students of the University of Hawai'i passed resolutions condemning the expansion of military research on campus."This type of research not only undermines education at the university," D'Andrea said, "but also the democratic principles that govern our society."Of particular concern to opponents of the research centers is the execution of classified weapons research at UH, which Kajihiro believes is being hidden from public purview."The ocean ordnance research task order is chum to lure the public into biting the Applied Research Laboratory hook," Kajihiro said. "It masks the true purpose of the ARL, which is the development of weapons systems for missile defense, sensor integration, anti-submarine warfare, high energy lasers and other weapons technologies to be tested at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kaua'i."University officials maintain that classified weapons research is not the primary focus of either project."Once we get involved in classified areas, the free exchange of knowledge and information is inhibited, exactly the opposite of our mission," Wilkens said.Activists like Kajihiro are unmoved by the university's reassurances, however, citing contractual loopholes as reasons for continuing their challenge."Remember that the Applied Research Laboratory's voluntary no-classified research clause only applies to the first three years of operation," Kajihiro said. "Do not let these institutions become Trojan horses for the expansion of secret research at UH. Do not let these invasive species dig their roots deep into UH."