Momentum in Arctic Science

Anchorage 8/4/16 – There is no more money. We have to make do with what we already have. That was the basic message of the federal Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee at a webinar attended by about a hundred science bureaucrats and scientists aimed at getting comments to finalize the Arctic Research Plan. The plan lines up federal research programs with the Obama administration’s announced Arctic policy goals.

They’re in a rush to get it in place by December, before the next administration comes in. Even though it’s supposed to set the course for the next 5 years, intensive planning only covers the next two years. That’s probably sensible, because whoever runs the new administration will be confronted with something already in motion – the train already out of the station when it comes to Arctic science. Budget permitting. Congress controls the budget, and the effort is to make this plan “budget neutral,” said Martin Jeffries, Assistant Director for Polar Sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

I think this momentum business needs a little more examination. It’s clear that Obama wants his push on climate change and Arctic policy to be a major part of his legacy. Some of this can be traced all the way back to his Executive Order of 2010, when former Alaskan Pete Rouse was his chief of staff. Obama lost political capital with the mid-term election that year, and the decision was made to look for every way to push his agenda forward through executive action, without waiting for congressional support. If it was the right thing to do and the public stood behind him, Congress might be forced to go along Obama ended up making an art out of this, hence the administration’s preoccupation with optics, which anyone in the press corps covering these Obamanauts can tell you, is dead serious.

I may be all wet about this but to me his seriousness bears all the signs of a Leon Panetta operation – a smiley face underlain by steely pragmatism. I got to know Panetta a little when he ran the Pew Oceans Commission after being Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. He was snapped up by Obama to head the CIA, and then was Defense Secretary. Panetta is all about getting the job done. He’s been on the outs with Obama for some years now, but I am guessing that some of the momentum for the Arctic Policy comes from him. Or his former deputy, John Podesta. Anyway, both of them are backing Hillary Clinton now, with Podesta in charge of her campaign.

So the webinar questions were a bit impaired by technical malfunctions, but a bunch of them came through. One of the first was “Why’s the Pentagon the lead agency for permafrost research?” The answer to that was that when you look at the money for that, most of it is from the Army Corps of Engineers through the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab. Then there was the question about sea ice monitoring. The lead agency there? The Office of Naval Research. When you really start deconstructing this plan, you start seeing quite a lot of military and strategic influence.

With much of Congress still in climate change denial and no new money coming in, how can we be surprised that the military emphasis that started all this remains? It’s a simple matter of momentum.




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