New strategy to strengthen research, HE in the Arctic

Denmark is hoping to become one of the leading Arctic higher education and research nations, according to Minister of Higher Education and Science Ulla Tørnæs, who earlier this month presented a new Danish strategy for prioritising work on Arctic issues in the years ahead. This will include seeing if it is possible to set up a ‘research hub’ in collaboration with Greenland’s self-governing administration.

There is significant international interest in the region, due to global concerns about global warming, receding glaciers and melting permafrost.

“What is happening in the Arctic is having an impact upon the whole world, for instance regarding climate change,” Tørnæs said. “Denmark considers it key that there is more knowledge about the Arctic and more well-educated young people in the Arctic region.”

Arctic research helps provide valuable knowledge about global climate change, and what climate change means for people, the environment, animals and plants.

And education in and about the Arctic is crucial to ensuring there are well-educated young people with significant knowledge about Arctic conditions, and who can play an important role in the sustainable development of the Arctic.

A point of departure in the strategy is to develop the web-portal Isaaffik Arctic Gateway, which was set up for the planning of research expeditions in the Arctic, into a ‘research hub’. This portal, in addition to providing advice on logistical matters for Arctic expeditions, hosts a forum for exchange of experiences in teaching and research.

The Forum for Arctic Research is a collaboration of Aarhus, Aalborg and Copenhagen universities and the University of Southern Denmark with the Danish Meteorological Institute, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, the Technical University of Denmark and the Arctic Command in the Ministry of Defence.

Action plans

Among other things, the Ministry of Higher Education and Science wishes to:
  • • Launch a pilot initiative offering academic preparation courses in Denmark to Greenlandic students prior to enrolling at academic institutions in Denmark.

  • • Arrange goal-oriented thematic meetings and publish information material to notify Greenlandic and Faroe Island applicants of the options to apply for funding within the Danish research and innovation system.

  • • Work towards developing a concept for goal-oriented dissemination of Arctic research to the Greenlandic society in cooperation with the Greenland Self-Government.
The strategy presents a bibliographic survey of 15 countries that have been active in Arctic research from 2008-14, having produced a total of 46,479 scientific articles in these seven years.

Scientists in the United States have written 28.5% of these, Canadian researchers 11.8%, United Kingdom scientists 7.7%, Norwegian scientists 5.5%, followed by German (5.4%), Chinese (5.0%), Russian (4.4%) and Danish (3.3%) scientists.

In 2013, some 91 different faculties, departments and research institutions in Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands reported that they were participating in Arctic research, with the largest research groups located at Aarhus and Copenhagen universities and the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. Natural sciences accounted for three-quarters of all Danish research on Arctic issues.

Another investigation found that DKK700 million (US$100 million) was used in 2013 to fund more than 600 research work years in polar research, split between Denmark (80%), Greenland (14%) and the Faroe Islands (6%).

The call for an advancement in science coordination in the Arctic aligns with the holding of the first Arctic Science Ministerial meeting arranged by the White House on 28 September, which brought together science ministers and their representatives from 25 countries and the European Union, to sign a joint statement on further research collaboration.

On 7 November, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, announced a parallel initiative, the US$1.5 billion National Oceans Protection Plan, using tools and new research.

“Canada has the longest coastline in the world,” Trudeau said. A marine safety plan “with commitment to indigenous co-management, environmental protection and science-based standards, are at the core of the proposal”, he said.

International reactions

So how well positioned is Denmark to be a key international player in Arctic research?

Professor Ola M Johannessen, founding director of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center and a member of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research, criticised the lack of substance in the strategy.

He told University World News: “Not one word is mentioned about the many problems to be taught and researched. For instance, the melting of the Greenland ice is very important in a global context, since the melting is increasing the water level globally.

“Today this global sea level is increasing by 3.2 millimetres per year with the contribution of the Greenland ice melting contributing approximately one millimetre per year, but this will increase in the future. This ought to be one of the most important research fields for Denmark in the future.”

Professor Hajo Eicken, director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in the US, which is working on Arctic climate change, welcomed the fact that Denmark is developing a strategy specifically for research and education in the Arctic, in partnership with Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

“Rapid Arctic change brings challenges and opportunities to the North; it requires new and innovative partnerships between researchers, educators and those impacted by Arctic change to muster effective responses,” he told University World News.

He said the Arctic Science Ministerial meeting identified a number of specific steps and international initiatives towards greater collaboration on research and education and Denmark’s Ministry of Higher Education and Science is demonstrating leadership in pointing the way as to how exactly greater cooperation in the Arctic can be achieved.

Professor Carlos M Duarte at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, an internationally renowned researcher on the conservation and sustainability of marine ecosystems, said this is a timely initiative that should provide additional impetus to Arctic research in Denmark and Greenland.

“Until a decade ago, the contribution of Danish scientists to Arctic research was limited, but has increased greatly since,” he told University World News.

“However, the strategy needs to consider a few elements, such as the role of international cooperation in advancing Arctic research, whereby Denmark could accelerate the achievement of its strategic goals by developing programmes and infrastructure to attract international researchers willing to contribute to Arctic research in Greenland.”

He said the plan quantifies current investment in Arctic research, but should also address gaps, such as the need for research vessels to be able to cover the extensive coast of Greenland, which represents 15% of the world’s coastline.

“Because of rapid changes in the Arctic and increased access to resources, Arctic research is of global significance, and the vision of the Danish government is timely, but needs to be accompanied by resources and infrastructure to advance Arctic research in Denmark.”

The European Polar Board in The Hague, Netherlands, said collaborative and coordinated initiatives like Denmark’s maximise synergies between organisations, research domains, communities and generations.

Danish research and education are very well positioned for collaboration and coordination with European and international partners, particularly through membership of European and international bodies, like the European Polar Board, and through Danish participation in EU-PolarNet, the board said.

“This new Danish Arctic research and education strategy should consolidate the place of Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands as key international partners for tackling the issues affecting or affected by the Arctic, and advancing understanding of the region from all perspectives," the board said.

Nadezhda Filimonova, University of the Arctic North2North coordinator at the Russian State Hydrometeorological University in Saint Petersburg in Russia, said advancing Arctic science and education could serve far-reaching scientific and political goals for Denmark, suggesting that it is seen diplomatically as a mechanism for promoting national interests in the Arctic.

She said, for instance, that Asian states through science research and collaboration might try to get a foothold in the region and develop cooperation with Arctic states in important areas of interest.

“Denmark could benefit from the increasing interest in Arctic science, for instance, by possibly taking assertive steps in forging scientific and educational cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states, as well as advancing cooperation on a bilateral level. However, in terms of bilateral cooperation enhancement, the country could possibly be faced with a dilemma of balancing its national interests,” she said.

Upgrading facilities

Professor Bo Elberling of the University of Copenhagen, who chairs the council of the university’s Arctic Station, said his university is strong in Arctic research, having hosted the Arctic Station for 110 years, but the station “could be developed into a modern natural science research platform, where research and teaching can go hand-in-hand”.

Today the Arctic Station can only house 24 guests and teaches up to 15-20 students, Elberling said, and it should be upgraded to house 40 guests with a teaching room of the same size.