Q-and-A: Ralph Townsend, ISER’s new director

September 14, 2016
Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) Director Ralph Townsend poses for a photo in the ISER office in Anchorage, Alaska Thursday, Sep. 8, 2016.

Ralph Townsend is the new director of the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Ralph Townsend recently took the helm of UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research from Gunnar Knapp, who retired from his post as director in June but plans to remain actively involved with ISER on a part-time basis. We spoke with Townsend on Aug. 31.


When did you arrive in Alaska and what have you had a chance to see and do here, so far?

I arrived Sunday, Aug. 21. [A few days later,] I went to the State Fair, and my daughter and I took a flightseeing trip over Denali.


You’re a native of Maine. What aspects of growing up there most influenced you?

Maine is very much “small-town America.” Like many who grew up in that environment, I have a strong attachment to family. I went to the University of Maine as a faculty member because I wanted to live near our families. And I am sure that my outdoor interests are rooted in Maine.


When and how did you first become aware of economics? What is it about that field that initially most fascinated you?

I was initially a political science major as an undergraduate. I took a few economics courses, and found that the economic approach to social issues appealed to me. In my senior year, I decided to go to graduate school in economics. Fortunately, I had taken enough mathematics and statistics as an undergraduate, because those tools are central to graduate education in economics.


You have been involved in a variety of public policy issues. Would you please describe one instance that was most meaningful to you, and how you helped bring about resolution of that issue?

Recreational fishing in New Zealand is very important, but recreational fishing is also very difficult to measure. When I arrived in New Zealand, the Ministry of Fisheries had conducted two surveys, and those two surveys resulted in very different estimates of total recreational catch. As a result, many scientists in the Ministry were opposed to further spending on recreational surveys. I convened two international workshops on recreational surveys, which were held in Wellington, New Zealand. Those workshops helped scientists understand both the reasons for the previous problems and also some approaches that could address those problems. The Ministry did commit to a new approach to recreational surveys and conducted a successful survey shortly after I left. What was interesting for me was that I did not bring any special expertise in recreational fishing to the effort, but was able to help the Ministry identify the central questions and bring in experts who could help the Ministry work through the issues.


What first drew you to become involved in fisheries research and economics?

As an undergraduate at the University of Maine, I wrote a senior honors thesis on managing Maine’s lobster fishery. When I got to my doctoral dissertation, I decided to go back to fisheries work. In fact, one chapter in my doctoral dissertation was an outgrowth of my undergraduate thesis. When I got back to Maine as a faculty member, I found that research on fisheries was important to Maine and that cemented the direction of my career.


Had you visited Alaska prior to being considered for the position of ISER director?

I had been to Alaska several times. One was to work with ISER on conference on fisheries self-governance. I also did a summer fellowship at [National Marine Fisheries Service] in Juneau. Finally, my daughter has been a guide in Alaska for four years, and I visited her last summer.


How did you first learn of the opportunity to become ISER’s director?

The position was announced on the listserv of the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade. I knew Gunnar from our research interests in fisheries, so I was somewhat aware of what ISER does.


What is it about that position and ISER’s mission that interests you most?

Both at the University of Maine and at the NZ Ministry of Fisheries, I was deeply involved in using economics to help improve public policy decisions. The director’s position at ISER will put me in the position of supporting outstanding staff that are deeply involved in social science research that can enlighten public policy.


Alaska is experiencing a profound budget crisis because of its heavy dependence on oil. ISER has been helping Alaskans better understand what is happening, why it’s happening and the various ways people can address that challenge. What further outreach and education is ISER planning for the near future?

This is exactly the question that is consuming much of my time right now. ISER will continue a significant role in education and outreach. That role may evolve over time, but I think that the level of activity will remain about the same. What we hope to change is to develop more sophisticated economic tools and models that will enable ISER to respond to a wide range of questions about Alaska fiscal policy in the future.


What is your vision for ISER? What new roles do you think it could play in Alaska’s economy, or in helping people better understand and productively participate in it? Having just arrived, I really do not have enough perspective to define a vision. Moreover, for a successful program like ISER, it is really the faculty and staff who define the future. I do hope to help the faculty and staff of ISER work to craft their vision of the future of ISER. I am confident that ISER will continue to be the preeminent institution in Alaska for policy-relevant social and economic research.


Compiled by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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