Back in the 1960s and 70s, my family’s Fairbanks living room was often filled with scientists from around the world. My father was an oceanographer at the University of Alaska, deeply involved in research on the northern marine environment. He frequently collaborated with international colleagues, which meant that a stream of interesting visitors would come to town for meetings and conferences. My mom would meet them at the airport in the dead of winter — boots and parkas in hand — and drive them home for cocktails and supper. Year after year, they clambered up our front steps, past our unruly dogs, and settled next to the fireplace. Just a kid then, I marveled at the friendly men and women from far away places I could only imagine, engaged in discussions I could rarely understand. Yet I always appreciated that something important was happening. Whatever my father and his colleagues had gathered to discuss, I knew it transcended the geopolitics of the day and aimed for something more lasting: knowledge.
For my father, a life in science was never a given. His father and an older brother worked the dark, sooty tin mills of western Pennsylvania to make a living. They stumbled home after long hours, exhausted and covered with grime. Only through grit, a staunch work ethic, and financial help from another older brother was my father able to attend college, then graduate school. And through what must have seemed like a miracle, he eventually earned his doctorate. He was able to enter a world he loved – a world of curiosity and inquiry, founded on the conviction that mysteries of our natural world might reveal themselves with enough investigation, patience and time. A world that respected the pursuit of knowledge and those who devoted themselves to it.
During his career, my father authored or co-authored over 100 professional papers, and wrote or edited a half-dozen books. He spent weeks on research vessels, tossing in the Gulf of Alaska or the Bering Sea, or plying the quieter waters of Prince William Sound, gathering samples and data that would illuminate his research. He traveled the world himself to share what he had learned. By the time he retired, he enjoyed the satisfaction of knowing that he had helped foster a deeper understanding of the oceans that surround us.
Today, my father is long gone, but the world he loved is in the crosshairs. Our governor has focused his reckless cuts on the University of Alaska’s acclaimed research programs, ostensibly to foster fiscal stability. But even my father, a life-long Republican, would see the lie. Seeking research grants was a big part of his professional life, and it was a competitive and difficult process. The state funding now at risk supports the grant search that keeps research alive; without it, funding sources will wither, and vital programs will die. In a purely economic sense, Alaska will lose dollars, not gain them.
In a scientific sense, the losses will be immeasurable. Whole research programs, whole lines of inquiry, will never come to fruition, or face shut down. Laboratories and field stations will be shuttered. Top experts on the Arctic will seek more supportive institutions elsewhere, leaving gaping holes in our ability to meet the environmental threats that increasingly plague us – threats like the loss of sea ice and melting permafrost, coastal erosion and ocean acidification, mass die-offs of marine life and volatile forest fires, to name just a few.
Put simply, the governor’s cuts to research will devastate science without saving Alaskans a dime. Which suggests that the cuts are not aimed at fiscal responsibility at all, but at knowledge itself. For our governor and his Outside collaborators, knowledge is a problem. It provides answers to tough questions that they prefer to keep unanswered. (Like confirming that an open pit mine in a major watershed poses immeasurable risks to fisheries.) It offers clarity when confusion is preferred. (Like revealing the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is causing devastating climate change.) It gets in the way of sound bites, confronting simplistic messaging with genuine doubt and wonder. (Like raising questions over whether Alaska can be “open for business” without restraint and still protect our land, water and people from damaging exploitation.) For our governor and his supporters, the problem with knowledge is that it makes us stop and think.
And when we stop and think, we can’t help but see the many threats we’re posing to the natural world. Salmon are rotting in Arctic rivers because the water is too warm. Whales are washing up on beaches in record numbers. Seabirds are dying en masse, apparently from starvation. Unprecedented drought is taking hold in our rainforests. And communities across our state are looking out their windows to see whole slabs of their land-bases disappear. It may not take scientists to tell us what is happening, but it will take scientists to help us understand why. And it will take scientists to help us fix the mess we’re creating, if it’s still possible.
There are many things that break my heart about the current attack on the Alaska I have known and loved for over half a century. But witnessing world-renowned Alaskan scientists plead to save the remarkable institutions they’ve created is, to me, one of the saddest. People who have dedicated their lives to improving our understanding of this extraordinary place we call home are seeing their life’s work undermined or jettisoned for short-term political gain, with Alaska itself bearing the loss. We can ask why the governor and his supporters would want to stifle the keepers of our scientific heritage, the protectors of our quest for understanding. But one answer seems painfully obvious: because the last thing they want to encounter in the battles they will bring is reputable, hard-won knowledge that supports the other side.