Fran Ulmer, Chair, United States Arctic Research Commission


Extensive research is being conducted in the Arctic, but there is still a lack of public understanding about its ecosystems and their rapidly changing conditions. Fran Ulmer sheds light on the Commission’s key priorities for the development of more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the Arctic’s environment, human population, biodiversity and industries


Could you provide some insight into the work of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC)? What are its key responsibilities?

The Commission offers advice to the President and Congress and federal agencies relating to Arctic research. We do not give out money or issue regulations or permits: we give advice. Our major duties under the law focus on recommending Arctic research policy and goals and promoting Arctic research. One of the ways we do so is by publishing a report every two years that identifies the key research priorities in the Arctic for the US. We work with a group called the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC). This Committee coordinates the research of federal agencies that have responsibilities in the Arctic. USARC assists IARPC in its efforts to develop a multi-agency scientific research programme plan, based on important research goals and agency missions.

Our responsibilities also include the promotion and coordination of data sharing and research logistics, and the facilitation of specific issues, projects or workshops. We act as a neutral broker of research and communication when agencies ask us to assist with interagency projects, and they often do.

Which areas of national Arctic research policy is USARC currently focusing on?

Five priority areas were recommended in our goals report last January. These include: environmental change in the Arctic; Arctic human health; the assessment of natural resources; civil infrastructure; and indigenous languages and culture. As an example, one priority within the civil infrastructure research agenda is to ensure the provision of clean water and adequate sanitation in Alaska’s villages and other small communities in the Arctic. This is challenging because of the high costs of construction and maintenance in the villages, and the difficult conditions posed by extremely cold weather and great distances and remoteness (in case someone needs parts to repair problems or specialised expertise). The Commission has been leading a working group of the many federal, state and local entities that are focused on this problem, each bringing their own perspectives to the table. For the last year and a half, Cheryl Rosa, the Deputy Director of the Commission has been studying this issue; and organising the working group which is trying to create a clear set of priorities that will help the agencies use the resources they have to address this challenge efficiently. The working group is helping Alaska with a US $1 million investment in new technology and trying to encourage the private sector to step forward with some innovative solutions for this region.

How is the Arctic Commission looking to address the risks associated with Arctic human health?

There are concerns about the presence of contaminants in the arctic environment – particularly for indigenous people who rely on wild foods like marine mammals, in which there may be a bioaccumulation of toxins. ‘The store outside your door’ is a term used in Alaska to depict nature’s food supply, recognising the valuable local source of traditional foods. Hopefully, people will continue to harvest local foods, which are important culturally as well as nutritionally. The Inuit people of Alaska, for example, rely heavily on harvesting marine mammals like whales, seals, walrus – these are not just a food source, but essential to their culture and society. However, additional research needs to be done to minimise any health risks associated with consuming these foods.

The partnership between the Arctic Commission and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, as well as other groups in Alaska, has meant we are able to prioritise this issue for research.

USARC is part of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), which recently published its Arctic Research Plan for 2013 to 2017. What overarching themes are presented in this plan?

The Policy Committee is preparing to release its new research plan, based on the goals and objectives that the Commission identified last year. The National Science Foundation, which chairs the IARPC, has placed great emphasis on bringing together federal agencies to create a research plan that is achievable, even now during a time of constrained budgets. We have been assisting the IARPC planning process, helping to reach out and communicate with people of the Arctic, such as tribal and community groups, boroughs, university academics, etc. The draft that is about to be released, is built on the goals that have been identified by the Arctic Commission as well as the input of local people across the Arctic.

Part of USARC’s remit is to advocate the dissemination of information amongst public and private institutions. What initiatives are you currently working on?

A lot of the research being conducted in the Arctic is not synthesised in such a way that helps people to comprehensively understand the Arctic’s ecosystems or rapidly changing conditions. Partly this is due to a lack of available funding: the broader picture of tying together data streams and various research efforts and presenting them in digestible and integrated summaries has seen less funding than species specific or discipline specific research projects. The Arctic Council is one entity where some efforts have been made to piece together research from a variety of places and countries, and involve large teams of scientists. The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), for example, is one working group that exists under the Council and is about to produce its Arctic Ocean Review in an effort to combine wide-ranging data and analysis of conditions in the Arctic Ocean.

The Arctic Commission has agreed to undertake a project in combination with the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies to attempt to simplify access to all of the existing web-based data streams on the Arctic. The proposed web portal will attempt to link together various sources that currently exist, both data and research – a portal of portals. It will be an on-going effort by multiple agencies and entities to advance understanding of the Arctic environment and make information readily available to the public. Hopefully by the end of this year, a version of this web portal will be available for people to visit, and add to as a constantly evolving resource.

In connection with the Canadian International Polar Year (IPY), USARC recently held a joint meeting with the Canadian Polar Commission (CPC), its first in over a decade. What was the purpose of this meeting?

The Chairperson for the Canadian Polar Commission, Bernard Funston, and I have been acquainted for many years. We have frequently discussed opportunities to develop closer communication between the two neighbouring countries and our research agencies. We both appreciate the opportunity to learn more from each other’s methods for organising Arctic research and consider what improvements can be made.

Our initial meeting, which took place last April in Montreal, was organised to enable the two Commissions to gain a better understanding of each of our responsibilities and to discuss common priorities. We agreed that there was enough similarity between our missions and interests to proceed with further dialogue. A second meeting has been planned for Vancouver in December, where we will discuss the extent to which the Canadian Polar Commission and the Arctic Research Commission can jointly shine a light on key investment areas for our countries.

Which opportunities for further collaboration between the US and Canada were identified? What strategies will you use to put this into practice?

The Arctic Council has initiated several research endeavours over the years that involve all of the Arctic nations. We have been asked: could the projects be performed more effectively if there was a clearer and continuing connection between our scientists? Take, for example, fisheries: very little is known about fish stocks in the central Arctic Ocean. Although cod has been researched, particularly in Norway and Iceland, there is relatively limited study of non-commercial fish stocks because the research is difficult, expensive and the logistics are challenging. Not much government investment is made in research that is geared towards on-going, baseline monitoring of fish stocks particularly if there is no commercial fishery associated with those stocks.

If there was a multilateral fisheries research agreement creating a science panel with the brightest minds in fisheries research across the Arctic, it might be possible to answer some of the persistent questions about the fish in the central Arctic Ocean and how the stocks are changing with the changing conditions. Perhaps the two research Commissions can stimulate more discussion and support for ideas like this one, recognising that the nations could accomplish more together than individually. The Arctic is a new frontier in need of a more sophisticated approach for international research cooperation.