The University of Hawaii set a new record in grants received from the federal government, industry and nonprofit groups.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been distributed to support faculty, graduate students and researchers at the University of Hawaii, and it all came from external sources.

The university set a new extramural funding record of $515.9 million in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, over $10 million more than the previous year, President David Lassner said Thursday during a board of regents meeting.

The money came from the federal government, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes for Health, the Department of Defense, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among others.

Each researcher at the university competed against counterparts around the nation to prove the importance of their work.

University of Hawaii President David Lassner says a record amount of extramural research funding is helping create jobs in the islands. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The money was spread out across the 10-campus system with $342.7 million to UH Manoa, $117.7 million for the entire system, $33.7 million for UH Community Colleges, $17.8 million for UH Hilo and $4 million for UH West Oahu.

“That’s 500 million votes of confidence in the people of UH by the federal government and external sponsors,” Lassner said earlier this week during an interview in his office on the Manoa campus.

Vassilis Syrmos, the university’s vice president for research and innovation, called the funding a significant accomplishment considering that Hawaii is such a small state.

Programs covered by the funding examine issues ranging from astronomy, climate change and health disparities to food insecurity and job training. Here are some highlights:

Workforce Development

The largest award — $16.3 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce — went to the Office of the Vice President for Community Colleges to provide more jobs and career training for Hawaii residents.

The “Resilient Hawai‘i: Good Jobs Challenge” program was officially launched on Jan. 30 and will be funded for three years.

Other grants have helped in subsidizing tuition, but the Good Jobs grant is significant in the way that it gives incentives to industry partners in the health care, technology, clean energy and creative industries so they can hire more people.

“We want people to be trained in Hawaii for jobs in Hawaii, so that they will stay in Hawaii.”

Dan Doerger of UH Community Colleges

The incentives include paying companies to take in paid interns and support the onboarding process for new hires.

“The plan is to do free workforce training for the residents of Hawaii and provide them with internships or full-time employment in Hawaii,” said Dan Doerger, the university’s main point person for the program.

The three-year initiative attracted around 600 people enrolled for free employment training and 165 of them are from the Good Jobs Hawaii workforce.

Partnered companies such as Diagnostic Laboratory Services Inc., Bank of Hawaii, Honolulu Board of Water Supply, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Hawaiian Electric are working closely within each other and the program to work out how to train interested applicants appropriately to match their job opportunities, Doerger said.

The biggest chunk of the grant will offer students free tuition and cover the cost of materials for the classes such as books and uniforms. On top of free tuition, students can also get job placement assistance. 

The initiative aims to prepare people for in-demand jobs in the state, so part of the grant is also spent to attach a person in training to a specific job.

“We want people to be trained in Hawaii for jobs in Hawaii, so that they will stay in Hawaii,” said Doerger, director of workforce innovation for UH Community Colleges.

Sea Level Rise

The School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology got $3 million from the Office of Naval Research to study ways to mitigate the consequences of rising sea levels.

SOEST Dean Chip Fletcher called it the “largest funding we’ve received for sea level rise analysis.”

The funds have gone to research in physical modeling of different types of flooding associated with sea level rise, supporting policy and economic analyses of coastal erosion on the North Shore and funding the analysis of Waikiki’s responsiveness to sea level rise including architectural redesign.

Sea walls protect homes in Lanikai Beach. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Sea walls are built to protect homes in Lanikai Beach against the effects of climate change. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The money also covers the tuition and salaries of students and workers involved in the analysis.

“This grant allows support in student education and support in research that matters to Hawaii,” Fletcher said, adding that the money also supports students at the School of Architecture and the College of Social Sciences.

Sustainability Solutions

The university received a $1 million National Science Foundation Engines Development Award to establish plans for its first Climate Resilient Food Innovation Network.

The initiative will support the development of a food innovation engine to demonstrate economic and cultural models for regions including Hawaii and the U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands.

As a collaboration with partners within and outside of the University of Hawaii, the idea of this network is to develop sustainability solutions driven by modern technology and Indigenous knowledge systems. 

Director Erik Franklin said this hasn’t been done before. However, the two-year planning period is just a start. The network will only begin activities if it wins another $160 million grant to build the engine.

This effort at the university is funded under the NSF’s new directorate called the “Technology, Innovation and Partnerships.”

Some graduate students of the university will be involved, but the initiative will primarily embrace other innovators and entrepreneurs in the business sectors as well as interactions with local governments and risk capital and investment organizations.

“We’ll be expanding beyond just food innovations,” Franklin said.

A Reputation Boost

The announcement followed a difficult legislative session for the university, which received only $385 million in state funding for the next two fiscal years, 30% less than the $550 million it had requested. And a large portion of those appropriations weren’t for priorities outlined by UH.

Lassner said the grants will help boost the 10-campus system’s reputation as one of the top research universities in the country while helping people at home in the islands.

“We are creating thousands of good jobs with that money in Hawaii,” he added.

Civil Beat reporter Stewart Yerton contributed to this report.

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