Industrial Support Services
The Science of Support
The deep roots of research support contractors
By Scott Rhode

cientists huddle on the stoop of the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC) building while a polar bear lopes across the grassy tundra. They watch the animal with a mix of caution and curiosity, but not because polar bears are their job. Not all of them, anyway; scientists come to the BARC to study atmospheric chemistry, sea ice, or the seasonality of Arctic plants.

Polar bears are the job of the BARC support staff, who ride over the grass on snowmachines to encourage wildlife to keep its distance. Bear guarding is one service provided by UIC Science (UICS), which operates the BARC as a business line of Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation. The company also maintains the offices, labs, and computers inside the station and the environmental monitoring equipment outdoors.

Patricia Morales | Alaska Business
“Our services are logistics and technical support as well as outreach engagement for the scientists that come to our facility,” says UICS general manager Terri Mitchell. Those scientists include researchers from the European Union through the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT).

The other INTERACT site in Alaska is Toolik Field Station, a miniature town by a lake in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range. “It is a nexus of Arctic research. It is where things such as climate change and other research are happening,” says Patrick Proden, Alaska operations manager for Polar Field Services (PFS).

Based in Fairbanks, PFS is subcontracted by Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit that runs several national laboratories. Battelle Memorial Institute is the prime contractor in Alaska for research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which awarded the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology a five-year, $19.7 million dollar grant in 2022 to continue managing Toolik.

From special instruments and cold-weather gear to lunches and laundry, Proden and his three full-time staff coordinate with other service providers, which might include partners like UICS, to support scientific fieldwork.

Proden says, “One of the things I’ve appreciated about working with Polar Field has really been the kind of ‘git-er-done’ attitude. There is no barrier to provide science support.”

Gamut of Services
Support services begin even as researchers apply for grant funding. “We by nature become part and parcel to that planning,” says Proden. “There’s a whole gamut of cost estimation and project planning that goes into that.”

PFS has experience in expedition design, frontier logistics, extreme climate operations, camp design, remote power and communications systems, freight movement, and as a cultural liaison. Before researchers go out to the field, support staff help select sites, assist with permit paperwork, provide safety trainings, schedule travel and lodging, and arrange last-minute fabrication or repairs. At the end of the season, they might handle delicate scientific samples.

They also handle other unavoidable specimens: support service includes maintaining bathrooms and pit toilets, shipping out the waste.

For Toolik Field Station, UAF hires about twenty seasonal staff from March through October, augmenting twenty year-round staff. According to the station’s Communication and DEI Manager Haley Dunleavy, “This includes cooks, camp managers and operational assistants, maintenance workers, field assistants, Fairbanks-based logistical and vehicular support, EMTs, drivers, hazmat, et cetera.” Another twenty staff hired through Battelle Memorial Institute provide additional support.

Not all science support is in the field. Midnight Sun Technologies, a subsidiary of Kotzebue-based Kikiktagruk Inupiat Corporation, offers scientific support as part of its suite of services. The company deals in network engineering, systems integration, and operations management.

While putting in a research camp at Chevak, Polar Field Services staff navigate river ice.

Polar Field Services

Small group of people from Polar Field Services staff in a small motorboat vehicle navigating the river's icy water in Chevak, Alaska on a overcast day
Someone has to set up, inspect, and maintain the boardwalk that protects sensitive tundra at a research camp, and that duty falls to support staff.

Polar Field Services

Four individuals from Polar Field Services support staff walking on a boardwalk plank path nearby a body of water on a clear sunny day as they set up, inspect, and maintain the boardwalk that protects sensitive tundra at a research camp in Alaska
A bear guard working for UIC Science helps a field research team as all of them are in snow gear attire and are on snowmobiles somewhere in Alaska on a overcast day.
A bear guard working for UIC Science helps a field research team.

Lloyd Pikok Jr.

Far removed from the Arctic, the offices for Midnight Sun Technologies are just outside of Washington, DC, where federal agencies are its biggest clients. Researchers at the US Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, or US Department of Defense count on the company from Kotzebue to deliver technology solutions.
Research Participants
Military clients are also part of the PFS portfolio, as well as university researchers not funded by the NSF. The company has also diversified into supporting start-up entrepreneurs and the film and TV industry. “Polar Field, as an employee-owned company, is continuously exploring other opportunities and other clients from an income generation perspective,” says Proden. “Some of the support that’s been offered to reality TV shows is an example.”

Proden estimates that PFS supports between sixty and seventy research teams each year. “They vary in terms of some of them being very, very top-heavy, relative to support that we provide. For instance, a camp put in Chevak or just outside of Bethel may have a camp manager and camp cook,” he says. Compared to setting up a kitchen and latrine on the tundra, Proden considers truck deployments up the Dalton Highway to Toolik Field Station to be simpler.

One consumer of science support services is Go Iwahana, research associate professor at the UAF International Arctic Research Center. Specializing in geocryology, Iwahana has authored papers on permafrost caves, bacteria in subzero brines, and methane emissions from Alaska Range glacier runoff. On the North Slope, he used support services for a field project from 2017 to 2019.

“A guide or two participated in our field campaigns,” Iwahana recalls. “They provided safety support for the snowmachine trips and camping logistics. The contract didn’t include a cooking service, but the guide helped with the kitchen work too.” In his field campaigns, typically two researchers and a student assistant were joined by a contract guide or two.

At an established facility like Toolik Field Station, the ratio is closer to two researchers for every support person in summer. “The number of researchers at the station at any given point in time varies between 0 and 20 in the winter and 130 in the summer,” Dunleavy says. In winter, support crew might outnumber scientists by a five-to-three ratio, she estimates.

Starting Support
The Arctic coast has long been the domain of Iñupiat whale hunters, dating back to commercial whaling ships borrowing their knowledge. “The residents of Utqiaġvik have been providing science support to researchers for over seventy-five years now,” says Mitchell. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the village corporation organized those services as UIC Science.

A few years earlier, in 2010, support services company Fairweather created a new division, Fairweather Science, to specialize in this area. In addition to coordinating research, Fairweather Science provides data collection, analysis, and reporting for its industry clients. In other words, its service is science.

Fairweather Science helps clients fulfill permit requirements through cultural awareness training, marine mammal surveys, and remote sensing to monitor ground-based wildlife. One of its innovations is the detection of polar bear dens. Justin Blank, who helped develop that technology as senior scientist, has gone into business for himself as Environmental Research and Consulting.

More than twenty years ago, a single entrepreneur started PFS. Jill Ferris worked in Antarctica as an ice shuttle driver, fueler, and outfitter for fifteen years, mostly with Antarctic Support Associates. By 1999, she relocated to the other pole, settling in Alaska as she had always planned. She established Polar Field Services to perform in the Arctic what she had done for South Pole researchers. A few of her Antarctic colleagues helped start the company, and when she retired in 2021, PFS became 100 percent employee owned.

PFS competed against Battelle Memorial Institute to be NSF’s prime contractor in Alaska, and the bid paid off when Battelle Memorial Institute hired PFS to execute the contract. Through the Arctic research operations office in Fairbanks, PFS houses project managers, stores field gear, and hosts trainings.

Much of what PFS does overlaps with oil field service companies. “The services are similar,” Proden acknowledges. “The same sort of things that go into supporting remote oil extraction are the things we do for remote science support: charters, equipment upkeep, camping gear, transportation, et cetera. However, PFS has not directly supported the Alaska oil industry to date.”

Allied Interest
The overlap between science and industry support goes back to the founding of Fairweather. Sherron Perry started the company in 1976 by providing aviation weather observation to North Slope explorers during the Prudhoe Bay boom era. The company boasts of strong relationships with Hilcorp Alaska, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips. When Shell was drilling in the Arctic Ocean, Fairweather managed a discharge monitoring program as a joint venture with Wainwright-based Olgoonik village corporation.
Located about 130 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, Toolik Lake has been a hub for Arctic research since 1975. The UAF Institute of Arctic Biology manages labs, dorms, and utilities at the station. It even has a sauna.

Jason Stuckey | Toolik Field Station

Aerial portrait photograph perspective of Toolik Lake area on a clear sunny day, located about 130 miles south of Prudhoe Bay, in which Tooklik Lake has been a hub for Arctic research since 1975; The UAF Institute of Arctic Biology manages labs, dorms, and utilities at the station. It even has a sauna.
A field camp receives a cargo delivery of supplies from a Dehavilland Beaver seaplane on the water/nearby grassy field area on a overcast day somewhere in Alaska.
A field camp receives a cargo delivery from a Dehavilland Beaver.

Polar Field Services

Group of tents and other equipment objects in a grassy field on a overcast day; A home away from home for field researchers, with comforts provided by a support contractor.
A home away from home for field researchers, with comforts provided by a support contractor.

Polar Field Services

“Science careers span a wide range of roles, and the path into them varies greatly… Support staff like those who work at Toolik Field Station and PFS serve a valuable role in research and are essential to making science happen.”
Haley Dunleavy, Communication and DEI Manager, Toolik Field Station
Now Fairweather is under the Doyon, Limited umbrella. The Alaska Native corporation for the Interior region acquired the company last May. Doyon is folding Fairweather’s 180 team members into its oil field services pillar.

Fairweather Science is there, too. Its research into polar bear dens, which involved airborne detectors flown over artificial dens with varying ceiling thicknesses, was partly funded by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association to help the industry avoid disturbing the animals.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that science support is a spinoff of oil field support, according to Mitchell. “I suppose it is easy to feel that science support comes from oil industry support because of the close proximity of our facility to Prudhoe Bay,” she says. “There are many science logistics support facilities around the world that aren’t located near oil production that I would say serve as an example that this is a stand-alone industry.”

Likewise, Proden says PFS was never an oil industry spinoff. “I think we have very distinct missions,” he says. But there have been crossovers, such as when he worked as a director at Iḷisaġvik College. Proden recalls, “Back in the day, we did loads and loads of partnerships with BP and Arco, with job shadowing programs in support of building the next generation of students to get into the oil industry.”

Mitchell adds that Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation has its own oil and gas division that supports industry clients, separate from UIC Science. “Can our employees find jobs in the oil industry? Yes, permit compliance does create jobs that are similar in nature, like bear guards for example. But that isn’t the reason UIC Science exists,” she says.

The BARC was built solely for science, Mitchell points out, and research there goes back well before the oil industry was established on the North Slope. “I believe these are two stand-alone industries, but they have cross-references that allow for workforce opportunities of similar nature. They developed in parallel, but science in Utqiaġvik goes back before our support of oil and gas production,” Mitchell says.

Valuable Roles
One way that UICS assists scientists is with indigenous ecological knowledge. Its team includes Iñupiat whalers, hunters, and Arctic survival experts.

“Our staff are traditional knowledge holders,” Mitchell says. “Indigenous ways of knowing can shape and detail predictions not considered by conventional science. Local knowledge can enable a research group to go out on the sea ice or the tundra and come back safely because they are guided by folks who live in that environment and have been taught by the generations that came before them.”

Local knowledge can apply globally, too. Dunleavy says, “Many of the seasonal workers that Toolik hires will spend the other half of their year working similar positions in Antarctica, Greenland, and other field stations. For quite a few of our staff, it’s been a multi-decade career.”

Dunleavy adds that careers in science are not necessarily a direct track from undergrad to PhD. “Science careers span a wide range of roles, and the path into them varies greatly,” she says. “Support staff like those who work at Toolik Field Station and PFS serve a valuable role in research and are essential to making science happen.”

Proden’s career at PFS started in science: he originally studied anthropology, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup in 1989 put him in touch with support services. The rest, he says, was “serendipitous.”

Pathways into the field are varied, says Proden. “Someone interested in science support with PFS can do everything from outfitting field gear, spending time in the field directly supporting groups, be a mechanic working on a remote energy system or leading a snowmachine traverse, or a carpenter helping build a remotely located lab,” he says. “Interested individuals can also go into project management or operations and spend more time in planning and back-office support.”

Whether flipping flapjacks, emptying a latrine, persuading a broken motor, fine-tuning a computer network, or shooing away a polar bear, support workers have a role in aiding the endeavor of scientific discovery.

“Not often people think of the back side support,” Proden says, “but we like to be in the back seat to make things work seamlessly.”