The University of Hawaii has signed a new five-year contract with the U.S. Navy for a controversial research lab even though anticipated revenue is significantly less than expected and officials will reveal little about the lab’s operations.
After refusing to answer repeated requests from Civil Beat and others for information about the lab, the university administration announced on Tuesday that the UH and Navy had agreed to extend the contract.
The first contract, which was signed in 2008 after much outcry among faculty and students, brought in just $7.9 million through 13 research projects sponsored by various military branches.
That’s less than a fifth of the $44.7 million in research revenue proponents originally said the lab could generate — a shortfall that the university in its Tuesday statement indicated could’ve put the whole arrangement in jeopardy last year.
Last March, the Navy told university officials that it wouldn’t extend the contract unless UH demonstrated a “stronger commitment to utilizing the contract,” presumably in part by hiring a permanent administrator to run the lab.
But university officials won’t say exactly what put the agreement at risk. And some critics are questioning whether UH is further shrouding the lab in secrecy and breaking promises it made to faculty and students that the public would be able to assess the work being done there.
“It’s impossible to know what to make of it in the absence of real and insightful, honest analysis and availability of information,” said UH political science professor Kathy Ferguson.
Mike Vitale, the retired Navy vice admiral the university hired last September to direct the lab, refused to tell Civil Beat on Wednesday exactly why the Navy threatened to discontinue the contract. He said he knows the reasons but couldn’t speak for the military.
A spokesman for the Navy’s Sea Systems Command, the Navy arm in charge of the lab, told Civil Beat on Thursday that the Navy was concerned that, prior to Vitale, the university didn’t employ a permanent director to oversee the work.
“The appointment of a full-time director to the (lab) was viewed by both the Navy and UH as a necessary step for continued, methodical growth,” said Sea Systems spokesman Chris Johnson.
Vitale said he was hired so the university can demonstrate to the military that it’s serious about continuing the lab and building the university’s “brand.” He explained that he plans to build its capacity, take on more research and bring in the rest of that $44.7 million — and more, if the Navy agrees to renegotiate a contract in five years as he hopes.
Much of that revenue, Vitale said, will be generated by classified research conducted off campus. (The contract strictly stipulates that classified research can’t be conducted on campus.)
Still, Vitale insisted the lab will continue to conduct research only in areas specified in the contract, including the ocean sciences, astronomy and information technology. He also plans on proposing research in alternative energy and material sciences.
“We’re going to stay in our sweet spot, which is in areas of research that are predominately passive, predominately defensive and seek to help protect our military people, make sure that they’re aware of when bad things are up there,” he said. “That’s … something I think we can defend very well and be very proud of.”
Officials emphasize that the Navy didn’t guarantee UH any funding when the university was named one of the five University Affiliated Research Centers in the nation to do defense research. Though the contract is with the Navy, any federal agency can tap the university to conduct research up to the $44.7 million ceiling, according to Johnson.
University officials are as vague about the reasons for the lab’s problems as they have been about exactly what unclassified defense research has been going on at the publicly funded institution.
UH has repeatedly refused to disclose details about the contract despite concerns among faculty members and students about what kind of research is being done. University and Navy officials have put Civil Beat and others through a constant feedback loop. The university says ask the Navy; the Navy says ask the university.
The Board of Regents hasn’t made the lab and the contract’s extension a discussion item on any of its recent public meeting agendas. UH President M.R.C. Greenwood told Civil Beat in a statement that’s because the new contract doesn’t include any changes to the old one, thus excusing it from public input.
But Kitty Lagareta, who chaired the board when the first contract was finalized, said it appears the university is failing to fulfill a promise it made as a condition of the original contract because it hasn’t prepared a report outlining the lab’s research.
“When you strike an agreement or compromise on something, it should be honored,” she said.
Vitale acknowledged the university hasn’t been as forthright as it should have been, citing confusion over protocol dictating how information is released. He said university officials “weren’t as prepared as we should’ve been” because this is the first time they’re handling such requests, adding that information on any unclassified research should be easier to obtain in the future.
On Wednesday a UH spokeswoman sent Civil Beat a list with names of the 13 so-called task orders, the bulk of which were actually sponsored by the U.S. Army. (See below for a list.)
The list came days after university officials told Civil Beat that it couldn’t release the names of all the task orders until it got clearance from the Navy as stipulated by a clause in the original contract. Meantime, Johnson told Civil Beat the university would be able to provide details on the individual studies more quickly than he would.
“It looks like there was a pretty uncalibrated response, and there was,” Vitale said on Wednesday, noting that he couldn’t elaborate on what the 13 projects entailed. “It’s clear it looks like, to the outside world, that we’re trying to delay or … basically, not (be) forthright.”
Contracts containing details on those projects, he said, can be obtained only through a public records request to the military.
UH Professor Emerita Beverly Keever is still waiting to hear back from the Naval Sea Command’s public records specialist about a request she submitted in February asking for that very information.
Meanwhile, critics question whether the university is pulling back from its role as a place where knowledge is a public commodity.
“It (the lab) creates a kind of dependency that’s not healthy for the university,” said UH graduate student Kyle Kajihiro, who’s also a board member of Hawaii Peace and Justice. “Getting so much money from defense research is really starting to skew the agendas of these institutions of public learning.”
The Navy disclosed for the first time last week that one of the agencies commissioning research at the university is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which conducts military surveillance from space.
The Geospatial-Intelligence agency, along with the Army and the Air Force, has not responded to requests for more information about the research its commissioned.
ARL Facilities planning. ($5,000) (complete)
Analysis of historical passive acoustic monitoring recordings in the Hawaii range complex. ($50,000) (complete)
U.S. Pacific Command operational energy reduction and displacement. ($91,000)
Waianae ordnance reef remedial investigation ($850,000) (complete)
Standoff IED detection I ($980,334) (complete)
Waianae ordnance reef monitoring ($550,097) (complete)
Pacific Island UXO detection and munitions constituents study ($920,000) (complete)
Standoff IED detection II ($1,598,139) (complete)
Standoff IED detection III ($1,800,000) (complete)
Near real-time viewing of refined images at the joint space operations center ($365,200)
Wide-eye camera for 1.2M AFRL telescope ($208,403)
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency-sponsored
Anti-neutrino Geo-location Program I ($198,044) (complete)
Anti-neutrino Geo-location Program II ($247,525)