The Sky is Not the Limit
The University of Hawaii Innovation Initiative Reaches for the Stars
Last fall, Peter Arnade went to Kaimuki for a haircut and came home with a new perspective. Arnade, a history professor who had taught in California for the previous 20 years, had recently joined the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa as its new dean of the College of Arts & Humanities. He was having a pleasant conversation with his hair-dresser when she offhandedly mentioned that, in a couple of weeks, she would be moving to Las Vegas, and she wasn’t happy about it.
“She told me that she was born and raised in Hawai‘i but couldn’t afford to live here anymore,” says Arnade. “When I mentioned to her that I had recently relocated to the Islands to work at the university, she said: ‘Sure, you got one of those high-paying jobs that always goes to outsiders.'”
Arnade tried to explain that schools like UH are global institutions, and they recruit nationally and internationally, but they serve their local communities. He wanted to tell her that the university’s impacts are far-reaching but often unseen, then decided to listen and learn more about his new home.
“I’d never had a conversation like that in any of the places I’ve studied or taught,” says Arnade. “She was polite but she was frustrated. It was a learning experience.”
Kick-Starting a New Economic Engine
A recent University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization (UHERO) study shows that Hawai‘i’s economy is dominated by sectors that offer limited potential for long-term improvements in the quality of life. The state’s traditional economic engines, tourism (19 percent of total employment) and the military/federal government (12 percent), contribute modest productivity growth. Over the past 20 years, military downsizing and shocks to the tourism industry have hit Hawai‘i hard. While a record number of tourists visited the Islands in 2012, real visitor spending had been declining an average of 1 percent per year from 1989 to 2011. Overall, over the past 40 years, Hawai‘i’s real gross domestic product per capita has grown by less than half that of the U.S. as a whole, a disappointing 0.7 percent average annual expansion. Such weak economic growth is indicative of an economy absent dynamic and high-performing industries, which means fewer higher-paying jobs.
Peter Quigley doesn’t like to hear stories about people leaving the Islands because of a lack of opportunity. He’s very familiar with the state’s lackluster economic performance, but he’s buoyed by other statistics that point to an alternative economic path: Over the past 10 years, extramural (outside) funding at the University of Hawai‘i has increased more than 50 percent. In 2009, the National Science Foundation ranked UH Manoa 51st out of 689 public and private universities in research expenditures. The ranking puts it only 11 spots behind research heavyweight University of California Berkeley, and ahead of other revered institutions such as University of Oregon, Oregon State and Notre Dame. In addition, extramural funding for the University of Hawai‘i hit a high of $489 million in 2011, during challenging economic times.
“People understand what UCLA is and what it stands for and what Cal is, but I don’t think they realize that their university — UH — is in that same class,” says Quigley, a UH assistant vice president. “The sky’s the limit in terms of what those research opportunities mean for jobs and the local economy.”
The university’s high ranking and big funding numbers took many by surprise, including people in the local business communities. However, they reflect the success the university has achieved in moving its research forward. What would happen with even more strategic attention?
Over the next several years, the university and the rest of the state will find the answer to that question. Quigley is executive director of the University of Hawai‘i Innovation Initiative (HI2), a 10-year effort led by UH President M.R.C. Greenwood to double the UH system’s outside funding from $500 million to $1 billion per annum to build the state’s research industry.
Expanding the system’s research capabilities begins with people, and not just any people. HI2 plans to hire and develop 50 world-class researchers over the next decade. Many of these scientists, also referred to as “principal investigators” (PIs), will contribute to UH’s areas of strength and/or opportunity, such as: astronomy and space sciences, clean energy, ocean and climate sciences, biomedical research, and informatics.
“There are only a few of these kinds of people in the world,” says Quigley. “A lot of them are currently at leading institutions in the world, so we have to convince them that moving to Hawai‘i is good for their research and their academic careers.”
Last year, the initiative signed up the first of its 50 distinguished researchers, when Edward DeLong, a globally renowned microbial oceanographer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of the National Academy of Sciences, agreed to relocate to Hawai‘i. (See “Big Man on Campus” on page 14.) DeLong, who studies microbes and their many natural processes, will be setting up shop at UH Manoa in 2014.
“We can attract someone of the caliber of DeLong because he sees the great strength we have in his area and he sees tremendous opportunity,” says UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple.
It’s an opportunity that promises economic development and diversification. “The University of Hawai‘i Innovation Initiative is an effort we hope the community will support, because it could determine the future of the state,” says UH President M.R.C. Greenwood.
Much of the new research will likely be led by UH Manoa. The flagship campus is one of only 32 institutions in the nation with the distinction of being a land-, sea- and space-grant research institution. However, the effort will involve all 10 UH campuses and research assets statewide. A couple of PIs will likely be based at UH Hilo, which boasts the system’s only College of Pharmacy, among other areas of strength. The new labs at Manoa, Hilo and elsewhere will need lab workers and other staff; the initiative is working with all campuses to build the human infrastructure that will be necessary to support a long-term, sustained effort. (See “Workers Wanted” on page 39.)
According to UH vice president for community colleges John Morton, the UH system’s seven community colleges will be active players in HI2. Over the past two years, the community colleges have received two workforce development grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, totaling more than $37 million. They are beefing up their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs, so that they can help provide such a workforce. “We know what kind of skills will be necessary, and we’ll prepare them accordingly,” says Morton.
UH Manoa’s Apple adds that the direct economic benefits from HI2 will be significant, but the potential impact on the larger community can be multifaceted. “With much of the work involving Island issues and challenges, the results could change the way we live,” he says.
The university cannot carry out the initiative by itself. For instance, providing the necessary support of the resulting technologies will require the cooperation of the public and private sectors statewide. For this, the Hawai‘i Innovation Initiative is using San Diego and its economic development organization, CONNECT, as its models. CONNECT, developed in the 1980s, started with the University of California at San Diego and linked inventors and entrepreneurs with resources to develop ideas and innovations into viable businesses. In three decades, the organization has helped start more than 3,000 companies. As a result, San Diego, which, like Hawai‘i, was dependent largely on tourism and the military for its economic growth, now has a booming research sector.
“The local business community has long recognized that research and innovation need to be a part of Hawai‘i’s future,” says Gary Kai, executive director of the Hawai‘i Business Roundtable. “We are very encouraged by the Hawai‘i Innovation Initiative, because, not only does it have a model that is wholly appropriate for Hawai‘i, but it is also led by President Greenwood, a researcher herself, who has seen the impacts that great ideas and innovations have had in other communities.”
“Hawai‘i needs a strong research university to fully realize the potential of our knowledge-based industries,” says Jeanne Unemori Skog, president and CEO of the Maui Economic Development Board and chair of the Economic Development Alliance of Hawai‘i. “Investment in University of Hawai‘i’s research could lead to a cure for skin cancer, unravel the mysteries of the sun or help feed a hungry world through breakthroughs in aquaculture. The possibilities are endless, but we’ll never know unless we explore them,” she says.
Greenwood and Quigley have given presentations to groups across the state and are heartened by the responses they have received, especially from UH graduates, who are surprised and proud of their school’s prominence in the research world. However, Quigley is really looking forward to reaching out to those outside the university community – people like the Kaimuk hairdresser.
“I’d like to tell people like her that the school down the street, the one that you drive by all the time, is one of those places where knowledge is not only taught but created,” says Quigley. “I’d like to tell her that, at UH, she and her kids don’t have to move away to study with some of the smartest people in the world. More importantly, they don’t have to move away to become some of the smartest people in the world.”