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Local Researchers Find New Home As Japanese Agencies Leave

International Arctic Research Center

The University of Alaska Board of Regents gave their formal approval for a $4.4 million project to repurpose the Syun-Ichi Akasofu Building on the campus of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks during a regular meeting last week.  The project comes after two Japanese agencies vacated the buildings.  Their absence means a loss of funding that would otherwise pay to maintain the building.  How the university will make up the deficit remains a mystery as the UA system continues to struggle with an anticipated $12 to $14 million budget shortfall in the coming year.

The Akasofu building, home of the International Arctic Research Center (IARC) was constructed in 1999 as a joint venture between UAF, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology.  But after 15 years, the Japanese have decided to refocus their polar research efforts and vacate the building.

Larry Hinzman, IARC’s Director, says, “We’ve had an incredibly strong partnership with the Japanese and they’ve been giving us between $3 and 5 million a year in research support. And they’ve been paying for half of the lease on the building, so it’s been a tremendous boon for the university and we’ve had some huge research accomplishments through our partnerships with them.” 

With the Japanese agencies gone, Hinzman says other research units directly associated with the University will move in. One of those organizations is the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (SNAP).  For the last five years, SNAP has been paying more than $180 thousand to lease offices off campus. Director Scott Rupp says moving into the Akasofu building means more than financial savings.

"SNAP was set up by the university as sort of a bridging entity to take a lot of our high latitude research, get it more applied and to cultivate collaboration across the institutes and schools. So we’ve been doing a lot of that already, but the really big boon is just going to be the ability to walk next door to researchers and not have to get in a car or walk," Rupp said. 

But savings on SNAP’s lease won’t make up for a revenue loss.  The Japanese paid for a lease that covered 60 percent of the annual upkeep costs for the Akasofu Building. In fact, they paid extra over the last decade and a half.  The unspent money was held in a reserve account that now totals more than $5 million.  More than half of that will pay to renovate offices for SNAP personnel.  The rest will be reimbursed.

Hinzman says IARC will have to find other ways to cover maintenance in the future. “Our researchers have been focusing on getting other external research funds, so we’ve been doing a lot more proposals to NSF, a lot more proposals to the department of energy, and NASA and the USGS, and so we are seeking other ancillary funds through external funding agencies.," he said. "So yeah we are making it up. And it is going to hurt us, we’re losing, just this year we’re going to lose $3.5 million from the Japanese support for research. And so that’s hard to absorb. It’s going to hurt us but it’s not going to kill us."

The renovation is scheduled to start in September, with completion slated for early 2015. Once moved, SNAP will join three other research organizations that focus on climate assessment, policy and fire science in the Akasofu building.