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UH biosciences center dodges abolishment

By William Cole

LAST UPDATED: 2:00 a.m. HST, May 20, 2011

A 51-year-old research center at the University of Hawaii that spawned the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the Cancer Research Center won a reprieve yesterday when the Board of Regents deadlocked on a vote to abolish the center.

The university said it has $60 million to $70 million in budget cuts to deal with and that some of the Pacific Biosciences Research Center's functions are better served by other campus programs.

However, 21 state lawmakers said in a letter of support last September that the center had an "impressive history of service to Hawaii" and that it had been effective in meeting the university's core missions of research, education and service.

The question of what to do next reverts to UH President M.R.C. Greenwood, but only the board can dissolve the center.

Yesterday's board meeting was the last for the academic year. In July new regents will be on the board, officials said.

Six regents voted to abolish the research center, and seven voted against the measure. Board Chairman Howard Karr then voted in favor of abolishing the center, making it a 7-7 split.

"It was very close. I guess we lived to breathe another day," said Ann Castelfranco, an associate researcher with the center.

"I'm very relieved. For me, personally, (the center's closing) could be a fairly big crisis if I was moved. I collaborate with a lot of people, but it's not clear that wherever I get moved (within UH) would be a place that would be supportive."

A diverse set of researchers and programs, including the Center for Conservation Research and Training, Bekesy Laboratory of Neurobiology and the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, are part of the center.

UH officials have sought to abolish the center for several years. Closing the Kewalo laboratory was part of an earlier plan but is now being examined separately.

Annually the center costs $3 million to operate and brings in $6 million in grant money for research.

UH said closing it would place the center's faculty and staff "in other appropriate units across campus."

University officials said more than $200,000 could be saved by not hiring a director for the center, and "synergies" could be realized by moving staff to other programs.

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