Arctic Scientific Collaboration Fosters International Stability

The Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a medium icebreaker, sits in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska during an Arctic deployment in support of scientific research and polar operations| Coast Guard News/ CC BY_NC_ND 2.0

An agreement signed between eight Arctic nations last May, despite geopolitical tensions between some of the countries, demonstrates how scientific collaboration can bring parties together to achieve common goals, a group of scientists write in a Policy Forum in the November 3 issue of Science.

The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed May 11, 2017, aims to improve movement of researchers, equipment, and materials; increase sharing of data and metadata; and transfer traditional and local knowledge across territories. It was signed by the foreign ministers of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States, as well as Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

"The Arctic, like Antarctica and outer space, has effectively been insulated from global geopolitics because of science diplomacy," said Paul Berkman of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, an author of the Policy Forum, noting that the Arctic Science Agreement was signed during a period of enhanced U.S.-Russian tensions, including disputes in conflict zones such as Ukraine and Syria and U.S. investigations into possible Russian hacking related to the U.S. 2016 elections.

Berkman, a professor at the Tufts Science Diplomacy Center, is an oceanographer with a deep passion for his work. He has spent an entire year conducting research in the Antarctica, has been scuba diving below ice in subfreezing conditions, and has dedicated his life to collaborative science.

The new agreement will be a successful one, he and his colleagues note, if it can expedite visa and research permit grants for field sites, aid in digitizing historic and other scientific data for access in a shared database and support field and summer school sites for training the next generation of Arctic scientists, among other goals.

In the Policy Forum, Berkman and colleagues note that polar international scientific collaboration first arose with the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which hinged on "substantial research" to manage nearly 7% of Earth's area forever for "peaceful purposes only," making it the first nuclear arms control agreement. The authors cite a chain of subsequent steps that followed that landmark treaty, from the formation of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991, which then became the signed record of international governance in the Arctic, to the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. The Arctic Science Agreement is the third legally binding agreement by the Arctic nations, which had previously signed search and rescue and marine oil pollution response agreements.

The role of science in supporting Arctic diplomacy was discussed at the 2015 Arctic Circle Assembly. | Pan-Arctic Options

Berkman noted that science diplomacy can address a continuum of security-related timescales, from addressing immediate risks of political, economic or cultural instabilities to addressing long-term sustainability issues, such as balancing economic prosperity, environmental protection and societal well-being over generations.

He and his colleagues write that effective implementation of the agreement will require its associated networks — including the International Arctic Science Committee, the University of the Arctic, and the International Arctic Social Sciences Association — to help strengthen research and education across borders, and note that these collaborative efforts underscore how science diplomacy helps to balance national interests and common interests for the lasting benefit of all.

"The challenge of our generation is push the envelope of actions and reactions over security time scales to informed decisions that operate over generations," said Berkman. "Recognizing that children born today will be alive in the 22 nd century means that their parents and grandparents have responsibilities to plan across the 21 st century."