With second Fulbright group, US maintains Arctic research focus

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Do policymakers pay attention to science? Given the noise in Washington in recent weeks surrounding two major Arctic-research initiatives, the answer appears, increasingly, to be yes.

“I think that the energy being exuded right now shows the high level of attention the Arctic has in Washington,” says Ross Virginia, a professor of environmental science at Dartmouth College and one of two co-ordinators for the Fulbright Arctic Initiative, a U.S.-funded international scholarship program.

Launched in 2015 in connection with the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship, the initiative will be extended to include at least a second group of researchers, officials announced last week during a ceremony marking the conclusion of the initiative’s first round.

Virginia hopes the 18-month program will become a fixture of the Fulbright Program, which is administered by the State Department.

In order to emphasise the connection with the Arctic, the initiative varied somewhat from traditional individual Fulbright research programs. In addition to including only scholars from Arctic Council countries, the program required participants to work together to address issues that affect the region and the people who live there.

This last, Virginia believes, is what ultimately allowed the scholars to show initiative had real value, both locally and in Washington.

“One of the critical elements that allowed the program to be welcomed was that success was a matter of whether people living there benefit from it,” he says.

Another aspect that helped keep the initiative focused on the region was to limit research projects to certain topics (energy, health, infrastructure and water) that were easily translatable to policy and capable of having an impact on people’s lives.

Preparing for the second round of scholars, he says, will entail coming up with areas to focus their research, and to improve ways to ensure that the public – both in the Arctic and in general – as well as decision-makers in Washington, are aware of the projects.

“There are plenty of challenges,” he says, “The priorities coming out of the Arctic Science Ministerial show there’s no shortage of topical areas for research.”

He is referring to the first, and rather glitzier, of the two Arctic-science events held in Washington over the past month. The White House sponsored gathering of science ministers from 28 different countries on Sept. 28 had the stated goal of finding ways to improve research into the effects that global warming is having on the region, and its effects for people at lower latitudes.

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The size and scope of the event netted the event a healthy dose of media attention, but critics also expressed some dissatisfaction with the efforts to link Arctic climate change to disruptions of the lives of people living outside the region, just as indigenous groups said their role had been minimal.

Representatives of indigenous groups were called into to a meeting in connection with the ministerial in order to share their priorities with the organisers, but the meeting was held the day before the event began. Indigenous leaders argued that having them take part in the organisation of the event would have given a more “equitable” result.

“Far too often, the concerns and interests of others have framed research and science in the Arctic and Inuit rights and interests have been marginalised,” Okalik Eegeesiak, the head of the ICC, an Inuit rights group, said in a statement. “This ministerial can be a turning point in the international Arctic community where value is rightly being placed on equity for Inuit. I am thankful that our voice was heard. I am hopeful that we have the collective will to act.”

For that to happen, it will require not just being heard, but also being paid attention to.