White House Opts For A Gigantic Arctic Research

December 24
7:42 PM 2016

A new Arctic research plan issued by the Obama administration 1 month before President-elect Donald Trump assumes office provides an updated road map for U.S. federal interagency research on the rapidly changing region for 2017-2021. However, the direction Trump will take regarding Arctic research remains to be seen.

The plan, released on 15 December, aims to tackle a number of goals, including improving the well-being of Arctic residents, strengthening coastal community resilience, and getting a better grip on other key regional dynamics. For the latter, the plan calls for more research to better understand the region's atmospheric compositionsea ice covermarinefreshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems; and the mass balance of glaciers, ice caps, and the Greenland ice sheet. An overarching goal calls for generating "environmental intelligence"-environmental knowledge such as observations, data, and models that can be used in support of decision-making.

Research to Drive Policy

The interconnectedness of research and policy is central to the plan. It identifies four areas where Arctic research can serve as "policy drivers" to better address health, economic development, and other issues related to Arctic residents; environmental stewardship; national and regional security; and an improved understanding of the Arctic as a component of the global system.

A Flexible Plan

"We don't know what the new administration's priorities will be, but we did prepare the plan in full knowledge of the fact that it would likely be issued shortly before a new administration takes over," Martin Jeffries, assistant director for polar sciences within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Implementation of the plan focuses on its first 2 years to "allow a new administration the time to decide where its priorities will be" and to allow the plan to change accordingly, Jeffries said.

Jeffries, who also serves as executive director for OSTP's Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), spoke with Eos prior to a 15 December town hall that introduced the plan at the American Geophysical Union's Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. IARPC organizes the interagency Arctic research efforts of 16 federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior (DOI), the National Science Foundation, NASA, and OSTP. IARPC has been a working group of OSTP's Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainability of the National Science and Technology Council since 2010.

The new plan, which builds on an earlier one for 2013-2017, is one of the Obama administration's final initiatives related to the Arctic. Earlier this week, the White House made several other Arctic announcements: On Tuesday, the administration withdrew offshore areas in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from future mineral extraction and announced an initiative with Canada to identify sustainable shipping lanes through their connected Arctic waters.

Rubber Meets the Road

IARPC member William Brown, chief environmental officer of DOI's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said that at this point people can only conjecture about what the incoming administration's view will be on fundamental science. "I don't think one should presume that there is opposition to it," he told Eos. "I don't think campaign statements by candidates necessarily translate into what the president does."

The science related to climate change "is so overwhelming," Brown said. But he noted that the value of the plan depends on the extent that it benefits the welfare of Arctic residents, shows the value of Arctic ecosystems for people, and increases knowledge about how extremes of weather and ice affect U.S. national and regional security.

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