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Arctic science at risk as University of Alaska braces for draconian budget cuts

A graduate student from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks takes an Arctic ice core earlier this year.

University of Alaska Fairbanks

By Michael Price

University of Alaska (UA) administrators are scrambling to decide how to impose deep mandatory spending cuts that could hobble research programs at one of the world’s premier Arctic science institutions. The UA Board of Regents this week began to consider declaring a “financial exigency” that would allow officials to take extraordinary cost-cutting measures, which are expected to include laying off some tenured faculty and unionized staff, as well as eliminating or downsizing campuses and departments. The discussion followed a 28 June decision by Governor Mike Dunleavy (R) to reject a proposed $8.7 billion state operating budget and insist on a reduction of $444 million, including a $136 million cut to the UA system.

The cut, which applies to the fiscal year that began 1 July, amounts to a 40% decrease in UA’s state funding, and a 17% reduction overall. Officials at the university, which operates three flagship and 13 community campuses, has some 1200 full-time faculty, and serves about 26,000 students, say they will decide how to proceed later this month.

Dunleavy has said the cut is needed to balance the state’s budget and boost annual payments to residents from oil drilling revenue. But researchers are worried about the impact on UA, a prominent player in studying climate change in the Arctic, the planet’s fastest-warming region. UA in Fairbanks (UAF) is among the world’s top Arctic science institutions in terms of funding and publications, according to an analysis by the University of the Arctic in Rovaniemi, Finland.

“I’m extremely frustrated,” says UAF geophysicist Nettie LaBelle-Hamer. “It’s not just about climate, it’s also about the socioeconomics, politics … we need to be part of that.”

Paul Layer, UA’s vice president for academics, students, and research in Fairbanks, says one of his highest priorities “is to maintain our status in Arctic research. It’s the one thing we do better than anybody.”

UAF’s International Arctic Research Center, which partners with scientists across the United States and Japan to study weather, ocean acidification, and other topics, is funded largely by grants from nonstate sources. But it relies on state funding to pay for support staff and operations, as well as work requested by state agencies. And at UAF’s Center for Alaska Native Health Research, state funds often pay for sending researchers to remote villages, says Deputy Director Diane O’Brien. “Even when we are bringing in millions of dollars of [nonstate] support, these are research services that we depend on the university to provide from their state allocation,” she says.

Others fear the uncertainty will prompt scientists to leave the university—or top candidates to reject job offers. Ironically, the cuts could make it harder to win funds from other sources. That’s because faculty can often only use state or university funds to pay for the time they spend drafting grant proposals. “In [the governor’s] view, all we need to do is get more federal funding and we’ll be fine,” LaBelle-Hamer says. “He doesn’t understand the research model.”

Source: Science Mag