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Arctic Research Slow to Focus on Societal Needs

The past decade of Arctic research has failed to address some of the scientific goals identified by policy makers and residents. A survey of studies finds Arctic research has yet to reach across fields and find ways to help stakeholders cope with the changing environment.

Written by Julia Rosen Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

In recent years, the sea ice along the rugged coast of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, has become increasingly unpredictable, making it difficult and dangerous for the Inuit residents of the region to travel and hunt. So, the locals have partnered with a group of scientists, led by Trevor Bell, a geographer at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to launch a research program called SmartICE. By combining satellite and ground-based data – some of which will be collected by sensors mounted on Inuit sleds – the initiative aims to provide real-time information about ice conditions that will benefit Inuit travelers, as well as shipping companies and researchers.

The project is a great example of how Arctic scientists and stakeholders can collaborate on research projects that address societal needs, said Maribeth Murray, the executive director of the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary.

In science planning documents compiled over the past decade, Arctic researchers and residents have increasingly highlighted the need to take a more holistic view of the Arctic system – one that includes its human inhabitants – and thus, for more solution-oriented work to help stakeholders plan, manage, and adapt to the changing Arctic environment. However, a new study by Murray and her colleagues suggests that Arctic research been slow to reflect these evolving priorities.

Murray and her colleagues reached this conclusion after conducting an exhaustive survey of thousands of conference abstracts related to Arctic topics and a comprehensive review of Arctic research grants awarded by major funding agencies in the U.S., Canada and Europe from 2000 to 2015. The results, which Murray presented last month at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, provide a snapshot of the state of Arctic science.

“I wouldn’t say that priorities have been neglected. I would say that not all priorities have been addressed,” Murray said.

While the team found plenty of research in the physical sciences, they identified a dearth of studies that directly addressed societal needs. This kind of work represents a “tiny wedge” of the total research pie, Murray said. Less than 11 percent of Arctic grants awarded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) went to solution-oriented science in the last decade, although Murray pointed out that the study didn’t capture proposals that were submitted but not funded. The researchers also noted that most Arctic science remains focused on the changes that have happened in the past 50 years, and not what the future might hold.

The team did spot some encouraging trends. For example, Arctic research is now attracting scientists from a wider range of disciplines. And, although they didn’t quantify it in the study, Murray said scientists and northern peoples are working together more than in the past.

The need for more forward-looking and solution-oriented research has been repeatedly emphasized in Arctic science plans developed by leading researchers, major funding agencies and Arctic residents. For example, one of the major goals of the U.S.-sponsored Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) is to understand “the critical intersections between human and natural systems” in coming decades. Similar priorities appear in most other Arctic planning documents – along with discussions of their vital importance – suggesting that “it’s that solution-oriented stuff that should be driving the whole enterprise,” Murray said.

So what’s the problem? One possibility is that tackling such applied questions requires scientists to stretch outside their comfort zone. “It requires people to become a little bit more interdisciplinary in their thinking, and also, I think it requires us to work much more collaboratively than we used to,” Murray said. “I would say part of the reason why we haven’t seen a big shift is because it’s not easy.”

Another way of putting it is that there’s a tendency for scientists to continue down the paths of scientific inquiry they’ve been on in the past, rather than branching out. “They want to push the frontiers where they have questions and they have questions where they’ve been working,” said Stephanie Pfirman, an environmental scientist at Barnard College who chaired a recent National Academies report on Arctic science that identified many of the same issues as Murray’s study. “They’re all great questions,” she said, “but we need this cross-connect between them.”

Even if scientists want to work on applied or solution-oriented research, they frequently struggle to secure adequate or reliable funding. “Often people get the funding to do their specific aspect, and then you don’t have the chance to connect all the dots,” Pfirman said. Although agencies like the National Science Foundation recognize the importance of such work, they typically offer grants through short-term initiatives that don’t provide sustained support, she added.

Indeed, Murray found that Canadian funding agencies awarded numerous grants for Arctic research, but for relatively small amounts of $50,000 or less. In the US, most NSF grants for Arctic research fell into the range between $100,000 and $500,000, except for social science projects (including those focused on societal needs), which usually had budgets below $50,000. The major funding agencies in Europe supported fewer projects, but at higher levels than North American agencies, the survey revealed.

Others say the Arctic may simply be changing too fast for traditional scientific establishments to keep pace. “Academia may be somewhat sluggish, and certainly funding agencies can be somewhat sluggish,” said Hajo Eicken, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and interim director of the International Arctic Research Center. For example, NASA lays out its plans for Arctic research in 10-year increments, but “over that time period, there are a lot of changes, and a lot of ways that you may have to completely revise some of your priorities,” he said.

Fortunately, Eicken sees help coming from outside of mainstream funding channels, including from foundations and even, in his home state of Alaska, from local governments. “Even though it’s very modest, they have funds to support research, in particular, work that looks at solutions at the local level,” Eicken said

But these projects wouldn’t show up in Murray’s analysis of major funding agencies, and may be less likely to appear in conference abstracts. That’s because the research that’s of greatest use to Arctic stakeholders may not always be the kind of work that gets presented at scientific meetings or published in peer-reviewed articles.

“A lot of those interactions are below the radar of these classic journal-based interactions,” Eicken said. He and his colleagues have started experimenting with faster alternatives to communicate with stakeholders, like using social media to get feedback on sea-ice predictions from local residents. He said it’s a necessary part of working in the Arctic: “If we justify at least part of our research in terms of societal benefits, you have to engage at that level.”

Ultimately, Murray hopes the new research will spark a conversation within the research community about how to better align Arctic science with its stated goals. Or, as she puts is, help scientists decide “how do we prioritize the priorities?” By revealing the disparities between the physical sciences and solution-oriented research, Murray said researchers and funding agencies can use the new study to strike a better balance. “I don’t think you can really have that discussion until you actually have some data,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just guesswork.”

Top image: Better collaboration between Arctic scientists and stakeholders can lead to research projects that address the societal needs of Arctic people living in a changing climate. (Flickr/Mike Beauregard)

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