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 who conducted research on the northern marine environment, frequently collaborating with international colleagues who came to town for meetings and conferences. My mom would greet them at the airport, often with boots and parkas in hand, and drive them home for supper. They would clamber up our front steps, past our unruly dogs, and settle next to the fireplace. As a kid, I marveled at the interesting men and women from places I could only imagine, engaged in discussions I could rarely understand. Yet I always appreciated that my father and his colleagues gathered for something important: the pursuit of knowledge.
For my father, a life in science was never a given. His father worked the tin mills of western Pennsylvania, and there was no history of higher education or science in his family. Through hard work and perseverance, he was able to attend college and then graduate school. Eventually earning his doctorate, he entered a world he loved — a world committed to examining the mysteries of the natural world with intelligence and patience, a world that respected knowledge and those who devoted themselves to it.
During his career, my father authored or co-authored more than 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 quieter waters like Prince William Sound, gathering data to illuminate his research. Over several decades, he 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 lifelong 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 provides essential support to grant searches that keep research alive. Without it, funding will wither and programs will die. In a purely economic sense, Alaska will lose dollars, not gain them.
In a scientific sense, the losses will be immeasurable. Vital research initiatives will never come to fruition or will face shutdown. Laboratories will be shuttered. Top experts on the Arctic will seek more supportive institutions elsewhere, damaging our ability to meet the environmental threats that increasingly plague us — like loss of sea ice and permafrost, mass die-offs of marine life, or volatile forest fires, to name just a few.
Put simply, the governor’s cuts to research will devastate science without saving Alaskans a dime. That fact suggests that the cuts are not aimed at fiscal responsibility at all but rather 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. It offers clarity when confusion is preferred. It gets in the way of sound bites, confronting simplistic messaging with doubt and wonder.
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. 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 more than half a century. But witnessing world-renowned Alaska 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 lives’ 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. But one answer seems painfully obvious: The last thing they want to encounter in the battles they will bring is knowledge that might support the other side.
Barbara Hood is a 1978 graduate of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is a retired attorney and businesswoman now living in Anchorage.