Editor’s note: This is the final in a four-part series on research at the University of Hawaii and its potential to drive the state’s economy. Bruce Stevenson, former CEO of Pacific Health Research Institute, contributed to the research for this series.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood both tout academic research as a key driver of the state’s economic growth. While the objective is admirable, little has been said about how far the university has to go before it becomes the kind of buzzing innovation hub they allude to.

Civil Beat, in its series, “University of Hawaii Research: Fulfilling its Promise?”, compared UH with four mainland state research universities to see how well it stacks up. We selected two that have established themselves as hotbeds of research and commercialization, and two that better resemble UH in terms of resources and reputation.

The result showed UH still has some distance to cover if the university is going to be an economic powerhouse on the scale of top mainland universities:

To recap some of our findings:

  • UH does passably when it comes to publishing in the prestigious journals Nature and Science.
  • UH does competitively by faculty member, but not by state investment, when it comes to another measure, the Google Scholar index.

But:

  • UH doesn’t perform well when it comes to life sciences publications.
  • UH does comparatively poorly at leveraging state investment into federal grants.
  • UH ranks at the bottom when measured by the number of members of the National Academies it has, as a percentage of total faculty and by state investment.

Innovation and Commercialization — University Comparison

School Faculty (# FTE) State $ to school budget (general funds) (millions) State $/faculty Google Scholar pubs (5 years)1 PubMed pubs (10 years) Science + Nature pubs (10 years) National Academies Members (NAS, NAE, IOM) HEEACT 2010 world (region) ranking NSF + NIH2 funding (2010) (millions)
UVM 1176 $45.9 (2010) $39,049 17700 3710 5 11 280 (125) $63.1
Wisc 60539 $1,107.812 (2010) $183,013 233000 20517 167 137 20 (16) $361.57 3
UCSD 390711 $1,024.4 (2010) $262,193 168000 8100 135 148 12 (11) $491.65
Davis 2794 $84413 $302,076 37500 3335 9 68 29 (29) $230.6
UH 213510 $593.28 (2010) $277,864 21100 2913 50 13 138 (76) $114.64 6

Faculty

School Faculty (# FTE) Google Scholar articles (2010) 2010 GS articles per faculty member PubMed pubs (2010) PubMed pubs/10 faculty member S+N pubs/1000 faculty members (10 years) NSF + NIH funding/faculty member NA members per 1000 faculty
UVM 11768 4480 3.8 463 3.9 4.3 $53,654 9
Wisc 6053 27800 4.6 2712 4.5 27.6 $59,730 23
UCSD 390711 34700 8.9 989 2.5 34.6 $125,834 38
Davis 2794 11900 4.3 557 2.0 3.2 $82,543 24
UH 213510 7970 3.7 394 1.8 23.4 $53,667 6

State Investment

School State $ to school budget (general funds) (millions) Google Scholar articles (2010) 2010 GS articles per $1M state $ PubMed pubs (2010) PubMed pubs per $1M state $ S+N pubs per $100M state $ NSF + NIH funding per $10 state $ NA members per $100 M state $
UVM $45.9 (2010) 4480 98 463 10 11 13.70 24
Wisc $1,107.8 (2010) 27800 25 2712 2.4 15 3.3 12
UCSD $1,024.4 (2010) 34700 34 989 1.0 13 4.8 14
Davis $84413 11900 14 557 0.7 1 2.7 8
UH $593.2 (2010) 7970 13 394 0.7 8 1.9 2

Our analysis examines how UH compares with two state universities that have transformed their local economies and two more comparable institutions. Although university officials prefer to compare UH with institutions they consider peers, such as the University of California, Davis, if we are to hold Greenwood and the governor to their words and UH is to be a catalyst for economic resilience, the level of discovery at UH needs to be world class — not just “good enough.”

Now between 400 and 600 faculty members are actively engaged in research — still less than half of the Manoa faculty, but it’s a growing number, said Vice President for Research Jim Gaines. Until the last four decades, research productivity was not even part of the criteria for faculty tenure, he said.

“UH is a relatively ‘young’ research university where the culture of research is now firmly established and the size of the ‘research faculty’ is growing but not all faculty are active in research,” Gaines explained.

Geographic isolation and one of the highest costs of living in the country make recruiting top faculty a challenge, and a culture that resists change makes it difficult to raise expectations of the faculty already here. But Greenwood and Gaines say they’re having success recruiting mid- and late-career faculty from top research universities.

“I would never diminish the potential that we have,” Greenwood told Civil Beat in an interview. “It’s not the potential of a university sitting in Silicon Valley or in Madison or in North Carolina. We have a bigger challenge. We have a higher degree of isolation (although that narrows every day with technology in communications).”

But Greenwood cited with pride the dramatic expansion of federal research grants to university faculty over the past 10 years, to roughly $450 million. And she pointed to sustainability and alternative energy as examples of areas where the university has potential, as well as its strengths in areas like oceanography, astronomy, physics and the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

“We have some really big opportunities. We’re really good at what we’re good at,” she said.

Greenwood said the university is evolving from an institution primarily focused on teaching to one that also stresses research and innovation. For example, one reason the university lags in life sciences research is that the medical school, traditionally a research hub, was started here with a focus on training doctors. The same holds true for engineering. However, she said, progress is being made on those fronts.

“The university has become a source of new jobs and has started building that,” Greenwood said. “We have a fair amount of work to do to bring the existing business community, which is very focused on tourism, together with the university to build the alternative future.”

It was Greenwood who brought the conversation about UH as an economic driver to the forefront with her Innovation Council in 2010, her higher education summit in the fall of 2010 and her innovation symposium in the spring of 2011.

Abercrombie added his voice to the conversation during his State of the State speech in January 2011.

“As for the University of Hawaii, I have high expectations for how it will transform our state under President Greenwood’s leadership,” Abercrombie said.

University officials are optimistic about the future of research at UH.

“Both the College of Engineering and the John A. Burns School of Medicine were initially created to provide excellent education to the students with little emphasis on faculty research productivity,” Gaines wrote in a memo to Civil Beat. “As the culture changes in those two very important areas, the university’s research reputation will continue to grow.”

While the culture change Gaines mentions has put UH on a positive trajectory, it is still important to know where we stand if we’re going to get where we want to be.

And our analysis shows UH is still looking up in many areas to universities that have established themselves as research and innovation centers.

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