Polar Research Strategy

Profiles of Norwegian Science


Photo: Tore Meek / NTB
Melting ice on a Svalbard fjord shows the dramtic impact of global warming in the Arctic region.

Agder, Norway

The Norwegian Academy for Polar Research (Norges Vitenskapsakademi for Polarforskning) has started implementing its 2021-2025 strategy. How good is it for science and society?

The strategy promotes four action areas:

Advance polar research and communicate its relevance to policy, management, and society

Broaden our membership base

Strengthen our economic base

Cooperate in networks

Point 1 presents some merit with promising directions, notably because its specific actions promote educating, ensuring involvement in emerging polar issues, and supporting public discussions. The details have downfalls. The strategy wishes to “amplify key messages from others” rather than prioritize the academy’s own scientific messages. They hope to be “an independent think tank on polar issues,” yet the London-based Polar Research and Policy Initiative (in which I am involved) has already captured this space impressively.

Most troublesome within Point 1 is “create an annual science-policy-science cycle.” Separating science and policy misses how scientists can best influence policy and practice. There is no annual cycle, since effectiveness and impact require a continual, joint, mutual process. The strategy even divides their “cycle” into the four seasons without indicating which pole’s seasons are used.

Point 2, meanwhile, is set up to fail. The idea is laudable and essential, stridently moving forward by espousing the principles of inclusivity and breadth. The implementation requires more insight.

This point’s first suggested action is assessing the membership and seeking to recruit new members, especially to fill in identified gaps. Both make sense. Both are easy, requiring little effort: Extend an open, international invitation for people to apply for membership, with the main application question being, “How do you plug the academy’s holes?” No academy member could possibly know every polar scientist in the world. Targeting invitations reduces opportunities for deserving people while increasing exclusion.

The same holds true for Point 2’s second suggested action, “create additional categories for involvement, such as collaborators or early-career affiliates” so that they “may later become full members.” This approach enforces separation and hierarchy, rather than giving everyone equivalent status for exchanging and learning from each other. Perhaps the preference is that people from the Arctic, whose families have lived there centuries doing rather than researching, are merely “collaborators,” not worthy to be full members.

Point 3 is problematic by focusing on cash and marketing, with corporate phrases such as “sales pitch” and “fundraising plan.” At least it does not include an “elevator pitch!” With the academy’s continual, proud statement that “Norway’s King Harald is the academy’s patron,” national prominence should already exist. There should be no impetus toward sacrificing science to be sycophantic to monied interests.

The Research Council of Norway, for instance, offers extensive opportunities for grant applications covering polar science. Norwegian researchers have further opportunities to seek Nordic, European Union, and many other research funds. The best science should be pursued, promoted, and supported, not just projects that convince rich non-scientists through a superficial “sales pitch.”

In fact, point 4 is the basis of science for society – yet not just “cooperate” for networking, but initiate, lead, and direct networks, projects, and programs. The latter concept of developing and supporting long-term, wide-scale polar research is barely implied in the strategy. Short-termism and avoiding ambitious agendas represent the death of creativity, innovation, and originality, which are the hallmarks of science.

Perhaps one of the strategy’s worst omissions is the absence of the word “Indigenous,” along with any related vocabulary such as “traditional” and “Saami” (in any of its various forms). Even the words “people” and “community/ies” are missing! Examples would be learning about changing snow and ice conditions from Indigenous wisdom and asking local Arctic peoples what futures they would seek and the costs/benefits of their scenarios. Science for society cannot be achieved without explicitly recognizing human beings.

Overall, the weaknesses and disappointments of the strategy might reflect the academy’s own limitations. The board lacks prominent polar scientists, many aspects of diversity, and international appeal. Other scientific polar organizations, from South Korea (KOPRI) to England (SPRI) – which, ironically, are not Arctic countries – are much better known and much better placed to lead and conduct polar research.

Norway’s position as the only country with territorial claims at both poles and its relative affluence provide a huge opportunity to grasp the endeavor of world-leading polar research. It might need to wait for the academy’s next strategy due in 2025.

The academy’s full strategy is at polar-academy.com/about/strategy.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.