The University of Alaska’s Arctic research faces an uncertain future as it waits for the final word on a possible $135 million cut to state funding for this fiscal year.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) vetoed $130 million from university funding, along with 181 other budget line items, on June 28, just days before the fiscal year began. The state Legislature previously approved a $5 million reduction in university funding earlier in the year.
Dunleavy made the cuts in order to increase to $3,000 the annual share of the state’s oil industry revenue that each Alaskan receives annually.
The proposed cuts, which would amount to a 41% reduction in the state’s portion of funding to the public university system, could be restored if three quarters of the state Legislature votes to overturn Dunleavy’s vetoes. The Legislature will go into a special session July 8 and has until July 12 to decide on the vetoes.
If the $135 million cut is upheld, “all programs will be affected,” said John Davies, chairman of the University of Alaska Board of Regents. And that includes the school’s world-class Arctic research programs.
At the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, researchers study all aspects of the changing Arctic climate, including ocean acidification, which makes it harder for marine life to survive, and permafrost, which is perpetually frozen ground that has trapped significant amounts of carbon.
When the permafrost thaws, it can release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the air.
The center gets most of its funding from federal grants and other external contracts, so the cut to state funding is unlikely to have an immediate effect on research output.
But to secure outside funding, researchers have to write proposals and collect strong background data—and they need state funding to do that, according to Vice Chancellor of Research Larry Hinzman.
The research institutions within the University of Alaska are important for understanding how climate change plays out, according to Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist and climate scientist at the University of Maine who has collaborated with University of Alaska researchers on several projects.
“They’re basically on the front lines of the impacts of climate change, seeing things like communities having to move because of sea-level rise and permafrost thawing,” Gill said. “The research institutions within the University of Alaska systems are really crucial for us understanding just how some of these things are playing out.”
Hajo Eicken, director of the International Arctic Research Center, likens the Arctic to a politically unstable neighboring nation, one whose activity needs to be closely monitored for our own national security.
“We cannot afford, simply, as a nation, not to know what’s going on in the Arctic because it impacts us in many, many different ways,” he said.
And he worries about the “ripple-down effect” cuts to the program could have. The IARC has partnerships worldwide, and a weakened center could hurt the global Arctic research community.
Faculty in other environmental studies programs worry about their own fates, too. They say the effects of weakened or eliminated programs could be felt in environmental industries across the state, including fisheries and forest management.
Eicken understands why Dunleavy wants to increase the share each Alaskan gets from the state’s oil industry—many households depend on the annual dividend, he said.
But it is equally important to invest in finding long-term solutions for Alaska’s most pressing problems, like the impending wildfire season in interior Alaska, according to Eicken.
Wildfires can quicken the erosion of permafrost, which in turn releases more carbon dioxide and methane into the environment.
“Preparing and mitigating and adapting to a lot of these changes we see here, that requires longer term planning, requires different options,” he said. “Those types of options require institutions like the university.”
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