EDITORIAL: At 75 years, one of Alaska's smartest investments is still paying off

·5 min read

Jul. 24—Imagine an Alaska without aurora forecasting. Without local earthquake monitoring. Without volcano observations that tell us when a mountain in the state is in danger of blowing its top. Without glacier measurements that establish how our landscape came to be and how climatic changes will affect us in the future. It's hard to envision how profoundly our knowledge of the place we live would be poorer for their absence — but none of them might have come into being without the establishment of the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute, which celebrates its 75th birthday this week.

A political win for the territory

On July 31, 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II, the U.S. Congress passed an appropriation of $975,000 to establish "a permanent geophysical research station." The allocation of funds was notable not because of its size — the equivalent of $13.6 million in 2021 dollars, mere chump change compared to the massive federal budget — but because Alaska was still a territory, and as such had no voting members and no real clout in Congress. Territorial Delegate Bob "Mr. Alaska" Bartlett had no votes to trade, but he was still able to appeal to the better angels of Congress members' nature, reminding them of the vast infrastructure gap that existed — and, in many places, still does — between the 48 U.S. states and his home territory.

Bartlett had just taken over as Alaska's delegate from Anthony Dimond in 1945; the success of his pitch for the Geophysical Institute was a demonstration of just how persuasive — and persistent — he could be. It was a demonstration that would be repeated many times, most notably when Alaska was seeking statehood in the late 1950s. Despite only gaining a Senate vote after Alaska was granted statehood in 1959, Bartlett's skill as a legislator was such that the Library of Congress estimates he had more bills passed into law than any other member of Congress in U.S. history.

Putting the University of Alaska on the map

Before the advent of the Geophysical Institute, the University of Alaska — which, at the time, had only one campus, in Fairbanks — was a far more modest affair than the system the state has today. In 1946, the university had no graduate degree programs and only 379 full-time students, which was then an all-time high. In 1947, after the Territorial Legislature spent beyond its means and ran Alaska's accounts out of money — there is nothing new under the sun — the university was left with $1,104 in its accounts and had to appeal to local businesses for bridging funds to keep the doors open.

The $975,000 for the Geophysical Institute wasn't just a new research opportunity for Alaska — it was a lifeline that allowed the university to become a full-featured institution with graduate programs, a strong focus on natural sciences and an eye toward understanding the great land surrounding the territory's roughly 100,000 residents. It helped draw research professors, who in turn attracted more students, which laid the groundwork for the system's expansion to campuses across the state. It's not hard to draw a line between the establishment of the Geophysical Institute in 1946 and the creation of Anchorage Community College — now the University of Alaska Anchorage — in 1954.

Paying Alaska back

After the initial federal investment for construction and other expenses, the state was on the hook for expenses related to the operation of the institute, an arrangement that rankled some legislators who groused about being saddled with more university infrastructure to support. But the worth of the Geophysical Institute soon became apparent. Its researchers were the first in North America to detect and receive the signal from Sputnik I after the U.S.S.R. launched the world's first satellite in 1957. Research on glacier ice and the aurora borealis led to substantial discoveries as early as the 1950s and early 1960s. And on March 27, 1964, Geophysical Institute researchers helped record and document Alaska's tremendous Good Friday earthquake, establishing its magnitude at 9.2 — the second-strongest in recorded history.

Eventually, the functions of the Geophysical Institute were established, through the help of state and federal partners, as individual service providers, such as the Alaska Volcano Observatory, the Alaska Earthquake Center and Poker Flat Research Range. More recently, modern research centers such as the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration have helped keep Alaska at the forefront of modern science and emerging aviation — and given the state a seat at the table in helping develop flight rules for this entirely new class of aircraft.

What hasn't changed is the Geophysical Institute's return on state investment; the institute has consistently brought in multiple dollars in federal grant funding for every state dollar spent on its operation. Recent figures from the university pegged that number at roughly six federal dollars captured for every state dollar invested. Outside of some federal road projects and mandated services such as Medicaid, it's rare for state funds to harness that kind of multiplier effect.

Seventy-five years after its founding, the Geophysical Institute is still the research anchor for the University of Alaska. Its researchers are still helping us learn more about Alaska — how it came to be, how it is and how it's changing. Its monitoring centers are helping keep us safe. And its forward-looking science is helping make sure our state is well-positioned to adapt to new breakthroughs and shifting landscapes. It's a lesson in just how much return a well-placed investment can provide — and, providing we're mindful of that lesson, the Geophysical Institute will have just as many accomplishments to celebrate in its next 75 years as it has in its first 75.

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