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Alaska researchers grapple with university funding cuts

12 August 2019

A 41% cut in the University of Alaska’s state appropriation could threaten the system’s thriving geosciences and Arctic research programs.

Toolik Field Station.
The Toolik Field Station, operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Institute of Arctic Biology, is located on the eastern shore of Toolik Lake in northern Alaska. Credit: Todd Paris/UAF

14 August 2019: Since this story was published, Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy announced that he and Board of Regents chair John Davies had agreed to cut the university system budget by $70 million over three years, rather than by $135 million over a single year. This year’s reduction will be $25 million.

This summer University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) glaciologist Regine Hock received an NSF grant of nearly $500 000 to study the effect of surface sediment on the melting rate of glaciers. But rather than recruiting a PhD student or shoring up her plans to sample Kennicott Glacier, Hock is in a holding pattern, waiting to see how 11 regents enact a series of draconian cuts ordered by Alaska governor Mike Dunleavy. “Not knowing what’s happening is extremely demoralizing,” Hock says.

On 28 June, citing state budget shortfalls due to declining oil revenues, Dunleavy used a line-item veto to slash funding for the state’s university system by about $135 million, a 41% cut, for the fiscal year that began three days later. (The state legislature has since passed a bill that restores $110 million, but Dunleavy has said he stands by his cuts. He has until the end of August to either sign the bill or veto all or parts of it.)

Forced to rapidly constrain costs, the University of Alaska Board of Regents voted on 22 July to declare financial exigency, which allows immediate emergency budget cuts, including laying off tenured faculty. The following week the board approved a proposal to explore consolidating its schools in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and Juneau into a single accredited university. Such a move would combine administrative efforts and eliminate duplicate courses and services across the three campuses.

At this stage, most attention is focused on the thousands of faculty and staff whose jobs are at risk and on the students and communities that will directly or indirectly feel the effects of the cutbacks. But Dunleavy’s veto also has major implications for the University of Alaska’s substantial research efforts, many of them dedicated to the geosciences and the Arctic. Scientists at UAF publish more papers on the Arctic than do the researchers of any other institution in the world, which not only leads to scientific advancement but also brings money, talent, and public services to the state.

UAF conducts about $150 million of research annually, by far the most of the three main campuses. Its three major institutes—the Geophysical Institute, the Institute of Arctic Biology, and the International Arctic Research Center—employ about 150 researchers whose dozens of projects include monitoring volcanoes and earthquakes, studying the health of Alaska Natives, and modeling Arctic climate.

UAF glaciologist Regine Hock.
Regine Hock conducted research at Jarvis Glacier in Alaska in 2014. Credit: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Not surprisingly, climate change has become a focus of research in a state that has 90% of its land covered in permafrost. The Institute of Arctic Biology manages the Toolik Field Station, an outpost 200 kilometers south of the Arctic Ocean that, like other facilities around the state, has measured rising temperatures over the past half century. “Permafrost is melting, and animals and vegetation are moving north,” says Robert McCoy, director of the Geophysical Institute. “That has drawn a lot of interest from science organizations and the Department of Defense.”

About 90% of the Geophysical Institute’s funding comes from NASA, NSF, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies, McCoy says. Most of the remainder comes from the state, which has been contributing about $5.7 million annually. Larry Hinzman, UAF’s vice chancellor of research, says that model holds for the other institutes on campus—on average, for every dollar UAF researchers receive from the state, they bring in $7 from external funders.

The outside funding insulates UAF’s research somewhat from the governor’s cut. But state funding is still required to maintain laboratories, pay support staff, and apply for more grants. “We can’t use federal grant money to write proposals for federal grants,” Hinzman says. “It takes money to make money.”

Michael West, director of the Geophysical Institute’s Alaska Earthquake Center, agrees. “The state monies are what we use to go out and procure the big fish,” he says. State appropriations account for about 15% of the budget of the center, which was created to reduce Alaska’s vulnerability to the 40 000 earthquakes that rattle the state annually; federal and corporate funders contribute the rest. “I want someone from Alaska’s leadership to look me in the eye and tell me that the $600 000 my center receives, which we use to procure $4 million [in external grants] and provide seismic monitoring to Alaska, is being poorly spent,” West says.

State money also goes toward paying researchers’ salaries. About two-thirds of the Geophysical Institute’s faculty have joint appointments with University of Alaska colleges that are funded through a combination of tuition and state appropriations. For example, half of Hock’s salary comes from external grants; she also receives money directly from the institute for research and grant writing. In addition, UAF pays her to teach nine weeks out of the year. Hock worries that even if her position is safe, she will be forced to teach more at the cost of her research. And considering the pending elimination of staff and resources, Hock would have to do more with less.

Kennicott Glacier in Alaska.
Regine Hock recently received an NSF grant to study Kennicott Glacier in Alaska. Credit: Regine Hock/UAF

Faculty and administrators also worry about their students. Hock points out that students and postdocs interested in research typically start at UAF with funding from external grants but then stay on longer with the help of state-funded scholarships and support. “We might not get the best students and postdocs because it’s not secure here,” she says. She may wait to advertise for the position associated with her NSF grant until she fully understands the implications of the budget cuts.

For those reasons and more, many members of the faculty, regardless of tenure, are considering opportunities elsewhere. “Job offers are heading this way in droves,” McCoy says. He has spent the past month sending out supportive emails to sustain morale. “I’m trying to get people to remember why they’re here, trying to get through this intact.”

McCoy is working on contingency plans that will help him make the tough decisions once he gets the financial specifics for the institute. University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen is scheduled to present a proposal for consolidation at a 12 September meeting in Juneau.

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