ISER has 50 years as state's think tank

Photo/Serine Halverson/AJOC

The state owes a lot to its original think tank. It’s almost as old as Alaska’s own statehood but has never waivered in its mission.

As editor Linda Leask of the Institute of Social and Economic Research put it, ISER has looked at virtually every major public policy in Alaska since statehood. That means everything starting with the economic effects of the 1964 Alaska earthquake through the current debate about how best to manage the permanent fund.

Fifty years ago, the newly formed state of Alaska got its first big bump forward in establishing a comprehensive research base. Today, ISER has grown exponentially, both in size and funding. The one thing that remains the same is its statewide focus.

ISER started out as the state’s sole development center for policy-related research. While its results have inspired several other likeminded research agencies, it remains at the lead.

Institute researchers, economists and scholars on its staff — many of whom teach in the University of Alaska system — have tackled almost every subject relevant to state development. Whether on energy, health issues, communications, fisheries, land management, rural development or education, ISER’s mission institute’s mission is to enhance Alaskans’ well-being through non-partisan social and economic research to inform public and private policy decisions. This could mean studying the economics of Medicare to analyzing youth populations through Kids Count.

“Our mandate really includes doing research that addresses issues that are important for public policy and communicating them to people who can put that information and research to use,” said Hudson.

This includes government, state, local and sometimes federal agencies as well as some in the public.

ISER actually started out as the Institute for Social, Economic and Government Research. While it eventually dropped the “G” in its acronym, it maintains a great deal of work for those agencies.

While much of its work is for the state, some of it goes beyond those borders. There is collaborative work across the Arctic with researchers in Canada, Scandinavia and Russia.

Making its studies public is something the institute takes great pride in.

ISER has helped establish some of the state’s most notable economists. For example, a lot of work has been accomplished by economist Scott Goldsmith. ISER Director Heather Hudson said she believes Goldsmith’s materials on the economic three-legged stool model is something the state has really seemed to know ISER for in recent years. The model describes the economy as being divided by thirds into petroleum industry, government sector and the other industries, such as tourism and seafood, combined.

Seafood itself falls under the research department of economics professor Gunnar Knapp. This industry has encountered fierce market competition with farmed sources over the years. Knapp has studied the 1990s crisis from this and the subsequent recovery. He said ISER has been a tremendously intellectual place to work.

“The most interesting and important opportunity I’ve had in my fisheries work is to study the dramatic changes in salmon markets and salmon industry over the last 20 years,” he said.

ISER was founded on April 13, 1961, after economist George Rogers initiated its establishment through the second state Legislature. Rogers was an economic advisor to governors and consultant to the Alaska Constitutional Convention. He saw there was a need for an organization to collect basic and demographic information that the new state would need to develop policy and establish agencies. ISER was the result.

There is now a fellowship fund to support junior researchers in Rogers’ honor.

ISER started as a statewide research institute of the University of Alaska. It was first housed in Fairbanks, later moving to the University of Alaska Anchorage. The institute’s first director, Vic Fischer, said ISER had the only collection of economic knowledge around. Economic consultancies and research capabilities have expanded widely since then.

Fischer was instrumental in the institute’s growth through the 1960s and 1970s. As a part of Alaska’s statehood himself, he made sure it never lost its full focus.

“ISER of course is still the only across-the-board organization that has in both the applied and basic research set of interest and capabilities covering everything from resource development to health, education, etc.,” he said.

ISER started out with only two people on its staff. Work got started with only a $5,415 legislative appropriation. Now that staff is 35 strong and is operating on a budget of $3 million. Funding now comes from the university with a large amount coming from grants and contacts from various government agencies. Some multi-year projects from national funders like the National Science Foundation also build that budget. Also, there are some funds from the private sector.

ISER has done a number of outreach activities for its 50th anniversary. Programs have taken place in areas of all sizes, such as the Alaska Dialogue in Talkeetna. This included bringing in four former ISER directors from Outside. It put on a symposium on the evolution of Alaska telecommunications at UAA. And the Legislature has been briefed on its accomplishments and what lies ahead.

“The idea was to use the 50th anniversary as a way to showcase what we do, reach out to the community both locally and around the state,” Hudson said.

ISER’s mandate has not changed much in 50 years. Only its growth has. Faculty has expanded from economists to professors in education, anthropology and other applied social research. Research associates and graduate students are included in this work.

“So we’ve kind of broadened not only the number of staff but broadened in some cases the scope of the research we do,” Hudson said. “But the primary focus has continued to be largely on Alaska, and the Alaska economy is still one of our core areas.”

Current projects include looking into factors driving rural fuel prices as well as getting broadband Internet into these areas. There’ve been updates to the Native language map and collaboration on the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The lieutenant governor’s office is even having research done in the election process. Another recent development is the new Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.

Like with all research, the work is never complete. ISER has a number of projects lined up with some even looking beyond the next 50 years. The faculty is developing a strategic plan to examine the state’s future direction. Goldsmith is examining the factors for an eventual post-petroleum economy.

“I’m very proud of what the institute has been and what it is as well with its promise for the future,” Fischer said. “One of the great things that I’ve personally enjoyed is still being affiliated with the institute and surrounded by bright young people who are thoroughly engaged in the most important issues for Alaska today.”

Hudson said she felt ISER has been a “hidden gem” that’s held in such high regard by those who know about it but the need to increase its visibility and diversify its support services is still there.

“We’ve been extremely pleased with the response we’ve gotten this year for our 50th anniversary from people, not only the clients in Anchorage but hearing from Native people and people in communities around the state that they really value our research and put it to use and look to us when they have research questions. So that’s really gratifying and we hope to build on that.”

“A lot of people there have thought carefully about Alaska for a long time with,” said Knapp. “It’s important to have that breadth of knowledge. A lot of these discussions in Alaska have been repeated for decades. Folks here have studied these issues in the past and can bring them out.”

11/07/2016 - 7:01pm