U.S. Arctic Research Commission: An Update from Fran Ulmer, Chair

In March 2011, I was appointed Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC), which is a great honor and an opportunity to help achieve the goals of the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984—to advise both the President and Congress on national research policy and priorities for the Arctic. The Commission also offers recommendations to the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) and assists in developing agency plans to achieve improved arctic research programs. The Commission has identified five research goals, which are now evolving into a five-year Arctic Research Program Plan (the first since 2006) to be developed by IARPC. The research goals are:

  • Environmental Change of the Arctic, Arctic Ocean, and Bering Sea;
  • Arctic Human Health;
  • Civil Infrastructure;
  • Natural Resource Assessment and Earth Science; and
  • Indigenous Languages, Cultures, and Identities.

In order for the USARC to become better informed about international efforts in the pursuit of the fifth goal, the Commission met in Iceland this summer at the Seventh International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences, organized by the International Arctic Social Sciences Association. We heard a wide variety of research presentations that provided inspiration for both the social scientists in attendance and our commissioners. Many of the key questions about human adaptation to climate change (e.g., subsistence food gathering, health, social organization, cultural disruption, resilience) reminded me of the importance of social science research and the need for more collaboration between social and climate scientists.

At the University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research, where I spent several years before becoming Chancellor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, we conducted pioneering research on the economics of infrastructure degradation due to climate change in Alaska. There is more work to be done throughout the Arctic if the four million people who live there are going to be better prepared socially, economically, and culturally for the changes ahead.

For that reason, among others, we are seeking more opportunities to work with other entities that have similar missions. An example is the Canadian Polar Commission (CPC), which is responsible for arctic and Antarctic research policy for Canada. The USARC will meet with the CPC for the first time in January 2012 in Washington, D.C. and subsequently in Montreal at the International Polar Year conference, "From Knowledge to Action," in April 2012. We hope to develop a productive partnership to benefit research in both countries.

Major initiatives are underway at the federal level to focus attention and effort on the Arctic, and to better integrate information and results into the decisions facing policy makers. In addition to a re-invigorated IARPC under the leadership of both NSF and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, an example is the new National Ocean Policy announced by President Obama. This policy calls for nine strategic action plans to implement the policy, and one of these is focused on "Changing Conditions in the Arctic." The Arctic is the only geographic region that warrants a specific action plan. The USARC's executive director, John Farrell, co-chaired the writing team that has worked hard to bring the local, state, federal, and public comments together in a balanced plan of action. The first full draft of the plan will be available for public review in late 2011. The latest information on the National Ocean Policy can be found at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/oceans.

Arctic-related information about other initiatives, programs, conferences, and news items are available in the USARC's Arctic Daily Update. If you are interested in subscribing to it, please do so at: http://www.arctic.gov. An archive of updates is also maintained at this site.

The USARC is a unique federal entity with the opportunity to bring more clarity to the conversation about the emergence of the Arctic as an area of tremendous potential. The Arctic is both valuable and vulnerable, and as such, needs intentional policymaking, which can best be shaped and informed by relevant timely research. As chair, I hope to help bring more people, more ideas, and more energy to that synthesis of need and opportunity.

For more information, see the USARC website: http://www.arctic.gov/ or contact Frances Ulmer (fran [dot] ulmer [at] arctic [dot] gov).

Editor's note: More information on the IARPC Arctic Research Program Plan is expected following the 7 November 2011 IARPC Principals meeting.