Shutdown cripples, but doesn’t sink Alaska Marine Science Symposium

The federal shutdown made waves last week at a major conference on Alaska’s marine research that may have repercussions for the coming research season. While the conference took place after the government workers were back on the job, it was too late for them to get authorization to attend the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. This meant that some of the most senior scientists in arctic marine research were absent.

There were a lot of empty chairs as the Alaska Marine Science Symposium, which began in Anchorage last week.

Matthew Baker is the science director at the North Pacific Research Board, which organized the yearly conference. He told attendees, “although the federal government has reopened, there have been statements sent to federal employees, or at least in most agencies, suggesting they are not approved to attend here.”

The Alaska Marine Science Symposium is a touchstone for most of the research that tracks the profound changes taking place in Alaska’s oceans as the planet warms. The presentations include data not yet published, and scientists count on it to better plan their research during the coming year. The empty chairs and holes in the schedule showed what a major role federal research has in the arctic, but organizers improvised.

“Their absence is felt,” Baker said. “Roughly one third of our registered participants, speakers, poster presenters, are federal employees. And most of the research presented, as well as the workshops, have some kind of engagement with some federal colleagues.”

Everyone did their best to fill in for their missing peers. On the podium, the absence of senior scientists became a familiar refrain, and the list of substitutions was long.

The Alaska Marine Science Symposium is not just any conference. Because the changes in Arctic oceans are occurring so fast, the symposium is the place to find out the latest from those doing the work.

“They’re all in one place. You don’t have to travel to a lot of different conferences,” said Betsy Baker, Executive Director of the North Pacific Research Board. “If you work on marine research in the North Pacific, this is the place to be. And if you’ve missed out on this, then the value of those sidebar conversations that are going on around us now during this coffee break is immeasurable.”

With a limited number of research cruises, the conference was a place of side meetings designed to get the most out of those resources. This year, with many major players absent, most of those side meetings were cancelled. Some federal researchers made it to the conference anyway. Those who live in town took time off, those who lived out of town paid their own way, but all were prevented from presenting their own work or representing their agencies.

Other researchers were not so lucky. Some had their work locked away in the offices of federal colleagues. Tuula Hollmen from the University of Alaska presented some compelling work on eiders nesting in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, but acknowledged that since half her team worked for the federal government, the data she presented was not complete.

“They called back the first day. They were back and were back on it,” Hollmen said. “But we weren’t quite able to wrap it up for this symposium so we’ll have to do another talk at the next symposium with the rest of the data.”

The government shutdown has pushed back deadlines for submitting proposals for next season’s research. Some promised federal funding for the conference itself may never come through. But it could’ve been worse. Winter is the off season for most marine research conducted off Alaska. Molly McCammon, executive director of the Alaska Ocean Observing System, remembers a few years back when a shutdown came right in the middle of the research season.

“2013. That was like October, November. There were cruises out, and some of the ships had to turn back because of the shutdown,” McCammon said.

At least once at the conference last week, that shutdown back in 2013 forced a researcher to admit he could not answer a question because that data was never gathered.