Why Arctic business development needs science — and vice versa

Conversations convened by the International Arctic Science Committee found recurring themes of shared interest between researchers, entrepreneurs and local communities.

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The Finnish multipurpose icebreaker MSV Nordica sails the Northwest Passage in July 2017. Sharing scarce and expensive resources such as icebreakers is one way science and industry can cooperate in the Arctic. (Arctia)

As access to Arctic regions increases so does business activity, as industries explore potential opportunities in resource extraction, technology, services, and infrastructure. Scientific studies are essential precursors to reduce the risks associated with investments on the frontiers of new opportunities. And new technologies developed for applications in extreme, remote regions have enabled private enterprise to push profitable ventures far beyond what once appeared to be the limit of secure investments. In these ways, science can facilitate business — while business can also facilitate science, whether through financing, sharing of equipment or resources, or direct collaboration.

In conversations we at the International Arctic Science Committee convened between scientists, industry leaders, and government representatives (including many Arctic residents) to consider these science and business relationships, several key ideas emerged from the participants:

  • In contrast to the almost solely extractive practices of early science and industry cooperation in the Arctic, current and future cooperation must involve, and indeed be directed by, local concerns.
  • Basic research and observations in the Arctic can unveil new understandings with global applications.
  • Arctic observations are increasingly focusing on societal benefit areas. A common, open-access framework has benefits for all.
  • Lack of investment in innovation infrastructure in the Arctic limits business and industry. Partner organizations (outside of regulatory or industry constraints) can help broker agreements among academic, industry, and public concerns. Inclusivity is key to building these relationships.
  • Research stations and science support infrastructure can be used as a model for local community science engagement and building local buy-in.
  • The case for Arctic science-business cooperation may be easy to make — but cooperation itself can be difficult.

Because the Arctic remains such a challenging region in which to build successful enterprises, it is generally necessary for business and industry to cooperate with academics and government agencies. The challenges in the Arctic are so big, while resources and infrastructure are frequently limited, so cooperation is often the only option. Energy and other utility costs are often high, as are the costs of materials and labor. Emergency response capacity is low, so failures can easily metastasize into disasters. Already operating on the margins, industry operating in the region must also deal with the reality of the rapid pace of climate change. Resilience must be built into infrastructure and operational plans. Systems must be designed not for the current environment, but for that which will emerge over the life of the project. So, how is science and business cooperation in the Arctic working? Here are a few examples:

  • Icebreakers are expensive, so scientists and shipping companies are exploring how to share assets and redirect planned voyages to share both costs and benefits; in cooperation with local experts, they can also ensure that they are not disrupting important environmental and cultural assets.
  • Industry also needs reliable projections of environmental variables over the lifespan of operations. Forecasting with academic, quantitative models and scenario-building based on the latest research are key to helping industry (and local decision makers) plan for a range of possible expected futures. These include trusted predictions of coastal erosion rates, soil temperatures, sea ice conditions, snow, wind loads, and other variables important in structural design. These models and scenarios are only as accurate as the observations and data input into them, some of which come from local observers and industry.
  • Managed properly, tourism can bring sustainable economic development to the Arctic while also increasing appreciation of the Arctic around the world. Cooperation between tourist operators and researchers provides shared benefit: Tourism enables economical access to new research locations, while researchers provide a more nuanced and exploratory experience for tourists. Employing local guides and experts provides local economic benefits while bringing insight to both researchers and tourism operators.
  • Sustainable industries, such as kelp farming, often operate on very low margins, making research and development challenging. Partnership between academic researchers and businesses allows for innovation and technology transfer. Kelp farming and harvesting innovations have allowed new businesses to start in Alaska, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway, for example.
  • Industry and the planet need cleaner technologies in all equipment that burns fossil fuels and uses petroleum lubricants. The oil industry has been particularly receptive to new technologies if they can be demonstrated to reduce costs or environmental impacts and still remain functional in extreme cold. Large industrial partners can also help finance and develop local infrastructure and subsidize energy costs, bringing local benefits while also making research more economical, too.
  • While communication remains a challenge in some very remote areas, other parts of the Arctic are hyper-connected. Data centers are increasingly being built in the Arctic to save on cooling costs. Big data analyses at these very same data centers and efficient data fusion of various real-time spatial data products would enhance navigation, search and rescue, and response to emergencies.
  • Industry has been taking advantage of recent developments in technology, such as unmanned aerial or underwater vehicles to avoid interactions with polar bears and other marine mammals. Arctic industry has also been taking advantage of unique geography to push forward space-sector technologies. New sensors deployed on UAVs have enabled detection of methane leaks and polar bear dens. Better sensor technology is also being developed to assess integrity of roads, warn about natural hazards, protect reservoir catchments, and more.

In early stages, most industrial research is high risk and using academia forestalls commitment to specific research directions. Research in universities is also highly integrated with teaching, which produces highly qualified students. Integrating both academic training and industry internships in hybrid programs would do even more to produce knowledgeable candidates well-trained to meet industry needs in the Arctic and with proven capability of conducting technical studies in extreme conditions.

Setting up more fluid movement between academia and industry early on during an Arctic educational experience would serve students well as they develop their later careers, regardless of their career path. Developing a workforce with both academic and business experience could allow for increased staff sharing between academia and industry in the future to sustain such hybrid models.

Innovation hubs, start-up incubators, and other elements of knowledge transfer infrastructure serve important roles in encouraging entrepreneurship and bridging between academia, industry, and local communities. In addition, academia can serve as an incubator where researchers are able to develop ideas, test instruments and equipment, develop protocols that will withstand scrutiny of critics and, with appropriate external peer review, carry the prestige and respect of the unbiased broker.

Relatively few businesses, in the Arctic or elsewhere, employ staff social scientists, but understanding social issues are critically important in the Arctic. Long-term positive working relationships in rural and Indigenous communities in particular require consideration of cultural norms, historical perspectives, and modern business savvy. Risk and crisis management are inherently social science issues. In incubating new Arctic technology and industry partnerships, it is important to remember that social science is also critical science.

Local communities and business interests, actively living and working in the Arctic know what they need and want.

The next generation of well-trained community leaders, Arctic entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists will carry a commitment to apply their ingenuity to their real-world challenges. Arctic people require persistence, grit, and innovation to make business profitable, workers safe, infrastructure resilient, and the environment secure in the face of changing conditions and ongoing development. Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in the Arctic must work together to create new solutions to these tremendous challenges.

Allen Pope is a glaciologist and satellite imagery scientist and the former executive secretary of the International Arctic Science Committee.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.