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Okinawa Institute Sets September Start for Second Lab Building Construction

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Japan's Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology said today it plans to start construction later this year on its second of three laboratory buildings planned for its permanent Onna-son main campus.

"The construction of Laboratory 2 is scheduled to commence in September, after which the construction of Laboratory 3 will begin as determined by the progress of PI recruitment," Kaoru Natori, a spokesperson for the institute, told GenomeWeb Daily News.

Natori was referring to earlier-announced plans by OIST to fill about 15 new faculty positions as it pursues accreditation as an independent university, and prepares to welcome its first class of graduate students in September 2012.

The second phase of construction is set to begin six months after the March completion of the institute's first phase, which consisted of a hub building and the first lab building. When all three phases are completed, the campus will house 700,000 square feet of lab buildings, part of a total 2.5 million square feet of construction planned for OIST's 550 acres.

OIST has launched 23 research groups in four major areas — neuroscience, molecular sciences, mathematical and computational biology, as well as marine ecological science. As of April, the institute had more than 170 researchers, and more than 70 administrative staffers whose positions support the researchers.

The institute is led by Founding President and First President Sydney Brenner, a co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, for research that identified key genes regulating organ development and programmed cell death in worms. He also helped discover messenger RNA.

For the current fiscal year, which began April 1, OIST has budgeted more than ¥9.9 billion ($113.3 million) in construction expenses — ¥7.7 billion in facilities subsidies from the Japanese national government, and another ¥2.2 million from its government subsidy for operations. The facilities funds include ¥2.6 million carried over from last year.

The first construction phase was completed at a cost of ¥17.6 billion, Natori said. In 2005, OIST's governing board anticipated spending a total ¥19.4 billion through March 31, 2009, for campus construction under its first "Medium-Term Plan."

The institute's budget, mostly subsidized by the national government, has risen steadily since the initial ¥5 billion in 2005, to almost ¥11.3 billion in 2009, and to nearly ¥16 billion in the current fiscal year.

For the current fiscal year, the Japanese government raised the operating subsidy almost 44 percent, or about ¥2.5 billion from FY 2009, to the current ¥8.2 billion. The increase will enable OIST to hire the 15 new faculty members as planned, Natori said.

Rising costs of construction and operations prompted the corporation to issue a statement last March declaring that it had put into place "a number of management changes that the Board strongly supports and is confident that these will be effective in avoiding such problems in the future."

"While there have been major challenges in the timely construction of these complex facilities, which are critical for the success in attracting the best students and researchers in the world, it is nonetheless essential that appropriate fiscal procedures should have been followed," the institute's governing board stated.

The statement came even as OIST defended what Nature magazine disclosed as its spending ¥36 million for its board, including travel costs and honoraria related to their attending meetings.

Since then, Natori said, OIST has carried out changes in procedures to contain costs. "They include improvement in sharing information between the research side and the administration, an increase [in] the number of budget staff members with expertise, and the establishment of a budget study committee related to the facility design."

In addition, the institute "has made progress in the recruitment of a Chief Administrative Officer with extensive experience in the management of public entities," Natori added.

"We are reducing expenditures by cost-effective administration, sharing of research equipment, and bulk purchase of supplies. We believe these efforts do not affect our research and education activities, but rather are beneficial for our future development," Natori added.

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