Monday, November 7, 2011

Proposed Cuts to Funding Threaten Arctic Research in U.S. and Canada





by Alison Weisburger As tough economic times persist across the globe, it is no surprise that the governments of both Canada and the United States are looking for ways to trim their budgets and use resources more efficiently. In both countries, recent discussions about potential cuts have given rise to the idea of reigning in funding for Arctic research as a way to save money. While these proposals are not yet formal legislation, they have garnered concern among the research community as well as internal debate among policy makers.


United States: National Science Foundation’s Polar Research Grants

Congressman Joe Walsh, a Republican Representative from Illinois, announced in an online video that The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Polar Arctic Research Grant Program was that week’s winner of the “YouCut” project. The “YouCut” project is an initiative launched by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that asks people to select from a choice of budget items and vote on which they would most like to see cut. In his video, Walsh proposes that the government could save by taking away the annual $25 million dollars in grants that the NSF awards to researchers studying the Arctic. The website states that Walsh will introduce formal legislation aiming to cut this program.

Fran Ulmer, the Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research commission (USARC), responded to Walsh’s video by releasing a statement in the USARC Daily email newsletter on October 17th. In her statement, she agrees that it is important to cut federal spending but asserts that the NSF Arctic research grants are “a small expenditure with a tremendous return on investment”. Arguing that research informs both policy makers and resource managers, she asserts that ignoring the need for information about the Arctic from scientific research “would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty.”

The Ranking Member of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas, also responded to Walsh’s announcement on October 21st. In her statement, Johnson claims that the Arctic has “become a geopolitical hotspot” because of the increasingly accessible natural resources and sea routes. She insists that “maintaining a research presence there helps ensure that the United States maintains accessibility to the Arctic and its many economically important resources.”

Canada: Environment Canada’s Ozone Monitoring Program
In Canada, the potential cuts to funding could affect a much more specific area of Arctic-related research: ozone monitoring. Despite the recent alarming report of a significant ozone hole above the Arctic, which included research contributions from several scientists who work for the Canadian government, more than 760 people at Environment Canada are still waiting to hear if their jobs will be eliminated because of workforce reduction related to budget cuts.

According to an October 21st article in the National Post, Environment Minister Peter Kent has explained to the House of Commons that “his department was ‘optimizing and streamlining’ the way it monitors and collects ozone data”, although he denies any move toward shutting down the atmospheric monitoring network entirely. The department has suggested that the budget could be trimmed by improving the integration between different technologies used to measure ozone.

The Conservative government has faced criticism for its review of the way resources are used in its atmospheric monitoring network, and scientists have urged policy makers to think very carefully about any cuts to ozone monitoring. As reported by CBC news, last Thursday morning several Environment Canada atmospheric scientists met with 30 MPs and senators in Ottawa to discuss the issue. The scientists highlighted that Canada is an international leader in ozone monitoring, and insisted that a lack of scientific expertise in this area has implications in understanding pollution and weather forecasting, and therefore is a health and safety issue.
The Outlook for Arctic Research
While these proposed cuts to funding are only in their exploratory stages, they seem to reveal a disconnect between scientists and policy makers. Even as scientists continue to expound the policy relevance of an in-depth understanding of the Arctic region, particularly in reference to developing strategic environmental, economic, and social plans for the region’s future, some policy makers continue to deny that the value of research is worth the cost.

What these proposals bring to light is that even while recognition of the Arctic region's global significance may be on the rise, Arctic research remains relatively peripheral to the concerns of the average policy-maker in Washington, D.C. or Ottawa. On the one hand, it is clear that the national governments of the U.S. and Canada are serious about nurturing their advantageous geopolitical status as coastal Arctic States. However, what remains to be seen is whether robust funding for research will continue to underpin their activities, or if parts of Arctic research programs will be deemed costly luxuries that are nonessential for policy decisions.