A Newcomer's Guide to the Complex System of U.S. Arctic Research

Robert H. Rich, PhD, CAERobert H. Rich, PhD, CAE

As those who pursue Arctic research know, the Arctic is a complex, interdependent system and there are many boundaries that must be crossed to successfully advance our understanding. There are multiple disciplines of science, engineering, and the social sciences. There are multiple stakeholders involved including academic researchers and administrators, government funders and resource managers, industrial interests, indigenous and community groups, and non-governmental organizations. Researchers from all career stages are involved, and there are international circumpolar issues. Even looking just within the U.S. there are a myriad of relevant federal, state, and local government agencies. There are gaps between the understanding of the scientific and the non-technical communities, and gaps between the experience of Arctic residents and that of the global population.

Bridging these boundaries is the Vision of ARCUS: "ARCUS envisions strong and productive linkages among international Arctic researchers, educators, communities, and other stakeholders that promote discovery and understanding of the Arctic and inform sound decisions related to the Arctic." Through our activities and programs, we work every day to help Arctic research advance in this complex landscape.

When I started at ARCUS in May much of this was new to me, and I've focused in the last few months on developing an understanding of the key participants and relationships that make up the Arctic research system. I've been visiting key Arctic research sites, some of the leading researchers, Arctic resident community groups, and other stakeholders. In the coming months and years, I hope to continue these visits and further broaden and strengthen the ARCUS network. In this article, I provide a high-level overview of some of what I've learned:

1. There are limited resources to support research spread across multiple agencies, not always coordinated: Every researcher needs funding. That said, an especially difficult challenge in the Arctic is to identify which agencies might be able to provide such funding. Unlike many other research areas, the Arctic is particularly fragmented in terms of varying agency missions, priorities, and available funding opportunities. There are groups trying to coordinate this, but the current state is still seen as being in need of improvement.

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission does a great job in setting out high-level National priorities based on diverse participation of stakeholders and holding of hearings to solicit a wide range of voices. The Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC) brings together Federal leaders from the key agencies in regular conversation through 12 collaboration teams, and many of these conversations are open to all those engaged in research. ARCUS helps support IARPC, and everyone is encouraged to participate. You can sign up for a collaboration team in your area of interest on the IARPC Collaborations website.

Sometimes, there is not as much coordination across agencies as would be desirable. Recently, the ARCUS-supported Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) published a position paper with recommendations as to how long-term observation of the changing Arctic environment should be coordinated, based upon extensive community input. These recommendations are now being considered by the affected agencies, and I'm hopeful that the various coordinating groups within the government will address these important issues.

2. The Arctic is increasing in perceived importance as an area to conduct and apply the fruits of research to policy: It is clear from the recent and unprecedented visit of President Obama to the Alaskan Arctic that there are influential parts of the U.S. government which would like to see greater attention to the region. As he discussed environmental change during the trip, the President referred to topics like permafrost, Arctic amplification, sea ice, coastal erosion, and other central concepts of Arctic research. In fact, the stated rationale for the trip was directly aligned with the ARCUS Vision, using recent discoveries to inform sound policy decisions related to the Arctic.

Also, earlier this year, the President established an Arctic Executive Steering Committee, Chaired by the Director of the Office of Science & Technology Policy. What these things will mean for Arctic research in detail remains to be seen. Early indications are optimistic, however, that various agencies will increase the priority given to our region, and increase funding in some areas to enable us to pursue the most important studies.

3. On the ground, there are a lot more great ideas than there is funding to support. There is real value in connecting researchers to available resources: Even with the many Federal, State, Local, and International organizations interested in Arctic research, there is not nearly enough funding to go around. It is always frustrating when I hear about a really insightful approach to advance our knowledge that can't take place because of constrained resources.

At ARCUS, we are striving to help our member institutions take advantage of the available opportunities. In conversations with funders, we seek out the latest priorities they have for research and then communicate those to groups that are able to best respond. We also communicate key priorities from the research community (e.g., through SEARCH) to agencies in order to influence their decisions. Where it makes sense, ARCUS can also help to catalyze and support the formation of teams that cut across institutional and disciplinary boundaries.


ARCUS is currently developing additional opportunities to strengthen the Arctic research community and connect people across boundaries. Recently, we rolled out three new membership categories, enabling broader participation from indigenous organizations, corporations, and individuals interested in advancing our knowledge of this important region. We have new member benefits, including access to conference/workshop and temporary workspace at both our D.C. and Fairbanks offices. We are constantly looking for opportunities to reduce the complexity of the Arctic research funding system, and to enable researchers at all career stages to pursue meaningful work. We are working to develop a collective voice by which the community can express the importance of Arctic research to policymakers. See additional news about ARCUS membership here.

This is a very exciting time to be associated with Arctic research, and the opportunities and challenges are rapidly changing. We must continue to innovate and to adapt. Through it all, ARCUS will continue to be your advocate and your assistant, connecting Arctic research as we've done for more than 25 years. Thank you for the opportunity to work with you.

Robert H. Rich, PhD, CAE
Executive Director, ARCUS