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Thursday, June 5, 2014

TRANSITIONS: Part 12C--University of Hawaii--National Centers

The catalytic influence of a transition is particularly effective if you can apply your previous accumulation of experiences in some coordinated fashion:
  • My PhD dealt with an area of biotechnology affecting the DNA/RNA bonds of E. coli in a tunable laser micro reactor utilizing exogenous photosensitizes.  This knowledge was influential in winning the National Science Foundation Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center.
  • Two other national centers were created within the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) at the University of Hawaii, plus fourth pathway, my current involvement with the Blue Revolution, linked to three pieces of legislation that became law under the leadership of U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga:
    • Hard Minerals Act
    • Hydrogen R&D Act
    • OTEC R&D Act.
The friendships and contacts I made at the Department of Interior, Department of Energy and National Science Foundation were key to building trust and confidence with program managers.  Back on campus, the role I played was in hiring the team, providing inspiration and initiating the planning.  Each Center was multidisciplinary.  Faculty members tend to be independent.  Put them together on a common project, and, well, this would normally be a cat herding experience.  By not taking credit for anything and sharing the incoming funds, as Director of Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, I found a way to have professors and researchers from throughout the campus work together for the common good.

Gratifyingly, the first was the Department of Interior Marine Mineral Technology Center (MMTC).  With the seabed mining and Law of the Sea contacts I made during my days in the U.S. Senate, I somehow was able to hire Harry Olson (left, with Connie on my roof), Michael Cruickshank (sorry, can't find a photo) and Charles Morgan (right) to lead the way.  "Somehow able to hire" cannot be simply explained.  A director does not have unlimited funds for positions and space.  How this happened was a minor miracle.  

Understanding the appropriations process, it was crucial that we partnered with another state, and the University of Mississippi brought in Senator John Stennis (left), who had a special affection for port projects, and Robert Woolsey (right), who had the perfect personality, experience and leadership post to link with Hawaii.  They supervised the continental shelf, while we handled the ocean basin.  An important third state was Alaska, for Senator Ted Stevens was a powerful Appropriations Committee Chairman, and a Republican, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks did research in the Arctic.  The Congress and White House keep switching around, and in all the Center consortia, we had to insure for the participation of both parties.

There was intrigue involved with this subject, as the lead lobbyist for this initiative, Connie Welling, worked for Lockheed, which built the Glomar Explorer (right) supposedly to mine for seabeds minerals, but  instead was designed to find a Russian submarine in the Pacific.  Today, rare earths from these manganese nodules have re-gained the interest of various countries.

The Hawaii Hydrogen Center was another miracle.  As I drafted the legislation that became the Matsunaga Hydrogen Act, I felt, why not become a Department of Energy Hydrogen Research and Education Center.  Around this time I became chairman of the Secretary of Energy's Hydrogen Technical Advisory Panel.  We had NO researchers on campus doing any R&D on the subject.  Within five years, the University of Hawaii became the leading university in the world on hydrogen research.  A key individual was Richard Rocheleau, who ran the program and went on to replace me as director of HNEI

The National Science Foundation Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center I consider to be the most important award that had the potential for making Hawaii the leading site for marine biotechnology.  The story of hiring Oscar Zaborsky is a classic case in what I had to do too many times.  You can click on that, but here it is because I think this was noteworthy:


Within a week of Dr. McKinley’s death, the SOEST dean’s office, procedurally, began to retrieve the position. In some desperation, I wrote to Dean Barry Raleigh, to recapture that position and begin a search for Kelton’s replacement. He agreed that we could advertise, and an ad was placed with a deadline of June 6.   

By the summer of 1995, the Mitsui Collection Project was going well. We decided to host a dedication, and with input from Professor Matsunaga, we named it the Mitsui-McKinley International Marine Biotechnology Culture Collection.  Several of the Japanese M's paid their own way to participate in the ceremonies, including the Japanese (and world) leader of the field, Shigetoh Miyachi.

During this period the University of Hawaii was in the throes of huge budget shortfalls. There was a rumor that a freeze would be placed on hiring. Unless you try to hire an important football coach at a university, it is essentially impossible to quickly bring on board anyone in any timely manner. Acting deans sometimes stay on in that role for years, maybe even up to a decade. It took all of one week for the University of Hawaii to hire coach Gregg McMackin in 2008. We succeeded 23 years earlier with Kel’s replacement. There is an amorphous cloud obscuring what really happened that summer because I can’t seem to find all the legal paperwork, but in July:

o      I vaguely remember a memo dated July 18 from Dean Raleigh telling me there is a freeze coming so don’t hire anyone. I interpreted that to mean if the freeze is announced.

o      I recall asking Associate Dean Magaard the following day, for Dean Raleigh had left on his summer vacation, to please approve hiring Oskar Zaborsky, for there is not now a freeze, but there could be one tomorrow. 

o      Magaard signs.

o      Then a month later, Raleigh, back from his vacation, sends me a sarcastic letter for selecting someone like Zaborsky, although maybe it was because I had hired someone when there was a freeze, which had, in fact, occurred. I accepted the blame for some misunderstanding or procedural uncertainty.

Sometimes one has to bumble into things to avoid the specter of insubordination.  I could not help, though, responding to Dean Raleigh’s deserved sarcasm with:

Thank you for your memo of August 21, 1995.  Yes, I too noticed some imperfection in Oskar Zaborsky’s (left) publication record, but there were important intangibles that made him by far the best candidate. I look forward to meeting with you tomorrow afternoon to discuss these strategic points.

To begin with, your statement that “we don’t have the scientists to do the necessary research, except for one in the Chemistry Department,” is much too pessimistic. For example, when we first initiated the hydrogen program nearly a decade ago, we had no researchers with a proven background in this field. We were able, however, to largely recruit faculty from throughout the campus, and during the past three years of annual reviews—and these are tough three-day sessions involving a panel of about a dozen from industry and academia—have been ranked #1 among universities. In fact, I’m pretty certain that we are at the top in the whole world with respect to a totally integrated academic program, as now and then I’m asked to evaluate these research programs in Japan and the European Union.

To set the stage for Zaborsky, we have already begun to form a team of potential contributors from SOEST, Pacific Biomedical Research Center, School of Natural Sciences, Cancer Research Center, College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and various national laboratories.  I’ve been told that during the next fifteen months the best universities and a few companies in Japan would like to send six post-docs to work with us for one and two year assignments. At the local level, we have been meeting not only with elements within the UH System, but also organizations such as the Oceanic Institute and Cyanotech to gain their participation. A report of our state-wide capabilities in natural products will be presented to Vice President Smith next month. We have the basis for forming leading programs in biopharmaceuticals, biological energy production and agribusiness.  What we do not have is a leader to bring together this potential critical mass.  That person is Zaborsky.

We have succeeded in gaining control of the pre-eminent marine biotechnology culture collection (with an estimate worth of about $1 million, even though the true value is inestimable), and are talking to curators of other international collections for possible transfer here. The Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed to cost-share the transfer and maintenance of the repository at our Bioresources Laboratory. Perhaps most enticing of all is that discussions have been initiated for each country to contribute $1 million/year to support research on the International Marine Biotechnology Culture Collection.  This will open the door to industrial contributions.  However, to be realistic, I wonder if we can pull this off with our current reputation and paucity of proven capabilities. We need someone like Zaborsky to insure that current talk becomes true substance.

When I initially inquired with key funding agencies about who they might recommend for this position in question, the feedback was nearly unanimous.  Both the Japan Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the U.S. Department of Energy recommended Zaborsky for this role—not merely endorsed, but recommended him. We can now add the National Institutes of Health to this list of supporters.  Follow-up discussions have reinforced our selection.

With respect to other options, there is no one else with the credibility Zaborsky brings to develop an integrated multi-million dollar research program at the University of Hawaii in marine biotechnology, especially since the bridge to early funding needs to be linked to biological hydrogen production and environmental remediation. There are some top scholars and consultants we know who have published extensively, but each has some major flaw in personality, motivation or leadership ability. We subsequently were careful in the search process—for some of them review our proposals, and we couldn’t afford to alienate key individuals in the field. If Oskar declines our best offer (and his acceptance is far from certain under any affordable circumstances) we should be able to find an outstanding researcher who probably will need a lot of help and a decade to build a strong program in this area.

However, the timing is now, as the current State and University budgetary conditions are such that if we miss on Zaborsky, it is doubtful that we will be able to marshal any support for a second try, thus forfeiting our chance for attaining greater international prominence in the area of natural marine products.  We will also stand to lose:

a)    much of the above;
b)    the $250,000 contribution from Hawaiian Electric Company to support an individual in hydrogen systems;
c)     a golden opportunity to gain a leadership position in international biopharmaceuticals, with good potential for funding from the National Institutes of Health and the private sector; and
d)    the momentum towards our quest to bring to the University of Hawaii both a National Science Foundation Center for Bioproducts Development and U.S. Department of Energy Hydrogen Technology Center.

The campaign for Zaborsky is, thus, much larger than the position previously occupied by Kelton McKinley. You assisted Kel build-up the Bioresources Laboratory, the base from which Oskar will operate. Without this foundation we would not be able to take this next step. But indeed we can compete, and I trust that you will appreciate the timing of this incredible conjunction of personalities (living and otherwise), budgets (where hydrogen, biotechnology and sustainability appear to be surviving well) and geopolitical circumstances (the Americans and Japanese want to work together in Hawaii in this field) so that we can leverage what we now have up to world class status.

Mahalo.

A copy was sent to the Vice President of Research, Dean Smith. Four days later, I sent a memo to Smith, with a cc to Raleigh:

“Since our meeting last week with President Mortimer, I had long discussions with Barry Raleigh and Oskar Zaborsky and I feel comfortable in saying that Dean Raleigh is now supportive of Dr. Zaborsky as the leader we need to raise the University of Hawaii to a leadership role in marine biotechnology.  …..

Mahalo.

So Oskar was hired, but he accepted primarily because he was especially gratified about being named the Matsunaga Fellow in Renewable Energy Engineering, a program funded by Hawaiian Electric Company, headed byMichael May. The double Ms worried me a bit.  Oskar was part of an intricate web involving the National Science Foundation and Akira Mitsui, and the details might be shared in a more complete publication on this matter in the future. In the meantime, it did truly bother me that soon after accepting, Zaborsky’s wife, Marcia, yes, another M, was diagnosed with cancer and remained in the D.C. during Oskar’s relatively short reign in Hawaii.

The final segment of The M Curse will be presented early this coming week.


Oscar (right, with Governor Benjamin Cayetano) went on to win this national competition, $5 million/year for five years for the NSF Marine Bioproducts Engineering Center.  As soon as we heard word of this award, I announced by retirement.  I should have stuck around for a few more years, as I was Oscar's protector, and things did not go well when I left.  (Oh, by the way, you can read about The M Curse here, which almost became a book, until the UH lawyer advised against it.)

The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 99 points to, again, reach an all-time high of 16,836.  The increase had something to do with the European Union introducing stimulus for their economy.

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