Opinions

Charting Alaska’s future: ISER at 60

Understanding Alaska and Alaskans is fundamental to shaping the state’s future. In 1961, Alaska’s Second State Legislature acknowledged the importance of this research mission and understood how it would inform policy and critical decisions facing the new state. This led to the creation of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).

When ISER came into existence, Alaska was a brand-new state. Decision-makers needed information and ISER researchers set about getting it. Early studies included how Alaska’s economy would be impacted by statehood, agriculture, Native land claims, recreation, the 1964 earthquake and the petroleum industry. Since then, ISER research has contributed to just about every public policy topic in the state, including the Arctic, natural resources, education, telecommunications, the Permanent Fund, fisheries, health care and – of course – Alaska’s economy.

Over the past 60 years, more than 550 researchers and authors have produced more than 1,800 publications and presentations. These are available to the public in ISER’s online repository, providing in-depth examinations of Alaska issues over the decades and insight into present-day challenges.

In recent publications and ISER talks, researchers have explored topics ranging from the impact of commercial fisheries on local economies to the use of Narcan in Alaska, the impact of COVID-19 on teacher candidates, threats to the accuracy of 2020 Census data, and the impact of UA research activities on Alaska’s economy.

Having directed ISER at various points in its history, we all know the pleasure of working among colleagues who are keenly curious about Alaska and how data can tell us more about every facet of the state. For each of us, our tenure at ISER was invigorating and memorable.

We also know the challenges of collecting and wrangling data, the difficulty in refining projects to answer questions that can be answered, the challenge of accomplishing more with fewer resources, and the importance of the work remaining nonpartisan.

ISER has always been part of the University of Alaska. Its first office was in Fairbanks, and it moved to Anchorage in 1984. Currently it is housed at UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy. Rooting ISER in academic scholarship means that, along with doing research aimed at answering questions from Alaska’s leaders, researchers can pursue projects that are interesting to them and relevant to their individual fields of study. ISER’s university affiliation facilitates collaboration with other faculty members and researchers, in Alaska and beyond. Students also have opportunities to gain experience as researchers and interns, which enriches ISER’s research and helps build the next generation of policy scholars for Alaska.

Not long ago, some of us roamed the halls of the Legislature in Juneau, sharing the latest research briefs. Today, the work is more accessible than ever: online at ISER’s website and through presentations and public testimony, and increasingly, discussions on social media.

If you care about the state and its future, or are curious about its past, we encourage you to visit our website, reach out to our researchers, and support and engage with ISER’s work.

This commentary was jointly authored by the following directors of ISER: Vic Fischer (Director 1966-1976), Lee Gorsuch (Director 1976-1994), Bill McDiarmid (Director 1997-2001) Scott Goldsmith (Director 2001-2005), Fran Ulmer (Director 2005-2007), Steve Colt (Director, 2007-2009), Heather Hudson (Director 2010-2012), Gunnar Knapp (Director 2013-2016), Ralph Townsend (Director 2016-2021) and Diane Hirshberg (Interim Director 2021-).

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