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Arctic research at a “crossroads” as network funding winds down

Thanks to ArcticNet, research in Canada’s Far North is thriving, but its funding runs out in 2018.


Melissa Lafrenière does the kind of climate-change research “you can’t do unless you’re actually on the ground,” she says. An associate professor in the department of geography and planning at Queen’s University, she collects samples of snow, rain, soil and groundwater from Arctic watersheds.

“These are not measurements you can obtain by remote sensing or other means,” she says. “You have to be there to capture what is happening.” It is costly work – one flight to get people and gear from Resolute Bay to her field site in Cape Bounty, Nunavut, is about $9,000 – as well as labour- and time-intensive.

Despite the obstacles, the last decade or so has generally been good times for Arctic researchers. “The state of Arctic research in Canada is really the best it’s ever been, in my mind,” says Dr. Lafrenière. “I’ve watched as the [local] populations and the number of students and researchers involved grow. But what’s really amazing, and what has pushed Arctic research forward, is the degree of networking, collaborations and integrated work that goes on.”

Dr. Lafrenière says these advances were made possible through ArcticNet, a network that coordinates and supports multidisciplinary research into the impacts of climate change and modernization in the coastal Canadian Arctic. Created in 2003, ArcticNet is headquartered at Université Laval and funded through the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program, or NCE. It facilitates the work of about 1,000 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, researchers, technicians and specialists from 34 Canadian universities. ArcticNet also collaborates with more than 150 international organizations.

Researchers with ArcticNet approach the Paulabreen glacier in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean. Photo by David Wrangborg/ArcticNet.

Louis Fortier, ArcticNet’s scientific director and a professor at U Laval, says the institute has galvanized research in the Far North. But, when nearly 1,000 students, academics and scientists converged on Winnipeg last December for ArcticNet’s annual science symposium, this sense of accomplishment was dampened by uncertainty – ArcticNet’s funding is due to end in 2018. Under the NCE rules, networks are eligible for a maximum of three funding cycles of five years each, and ArcticNet is nearing the end of its last cycle.

By that time, it will have received a total of $113.2 million to fund Arctic research, maintain the Polar Data Catalogue (a collection of diverse datasets on the Arctic) and coordinate costly but coveted research time aboard Canada’s research icebreaker, CCGS Amundsen. ArcticNet helped defray some of Dr. Lafrenière’s travel costs, for example, but the network’s reach went well beyond that, she says.

“ArcticNet provides a significant proportion of the funding required for our project in Iqaluit, such as student salaries, northern researchers at the Nunavut Research Institute, all of the logistics funding and much of the analytical funding,” she says. “ArcticNet also supports student stipends for the Cape Bounty work, and part of a technician salary which supports all the research in my lab.”

Without that help, she anticipates having to cut her research program by more than half next year. “I simply won’t be able to support all the projects and students I have when the ArcticNet funding runs out.”

This puts Canadian Arctic research “at a crossroads,” says U Laval’s Dr. Fortier. “Everybody came together with ArcticNet to consolidate what we were doing in the Arctic – government and university scientists, the private sector and, most importantly, the northern communities.”

He now fears a regression to what he calls “the Dark Ages” of Arctic research. “In the 1980s and ’90s, universities essentially piggybacked on federal infrastructure,” he says. “The only things we were funding in Canada were monodisciplinary, small-team research projects that were essentially supported by the Polar Continental Shelf Program [administered by Natural Resources Canada]. That was the only access scientists had to the Arctic and northern communities.”

Memorial University’s Trevor Bell agrees. “There has been an erosion of science capability in the federal government, which allowed Canadian universities to step forward,” he says. A noted field scientist and geographer, Dr. Bell has twice won the $1.5 million-Arctic Inspiration Prize for research benefitting Canadian Arctic residents. “Canada has done great work,” he says, “but it still lags behind in terms of our knowledge of how vulnerable the Arctic ecology and communities are to climate change and globalization.”

Canada needs to follow the example of other polar countries and establish a pan-Canadian academic institute focused on the Arctic, says Dr. Bell. “Such an institute helps to coordinate efforts, especially around the expense of doing fieldwork,” he says. The Polar Continental Shelf Program does some of that, “but they are never funded enough and are there primarily to support government research, not necessarily academic research.”

Dr. Bell notes that there are other sources of funding, such as the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs and Canada Research Chairs, all of which encourage Arctic research to some degree. There are also funding opportunities through the Tri-Council agencies (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research). But, says University of British Columbia tundra biologist Greg Henry, “these are the smaller grants, not the bigger projects, which are still extremely important.”

Dr. Henry says he senses that Arctic research in Canada is waning and he blames the “shotgun approach” the country has taken regarding the Arctic. “We don’t even declare ourselves an Arctic country like the United States does, and it has hardly any Arctic at all,” he says.

One bright spot on the horizon Dr. Henry notes is the federally funded Canadian High Arctic Research Station that’s under construction in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and scheduled to open later this year. But, says Dr. Henry, “they’ve got a fairly large mandate with a relatively small budget” and won’t be able to replace “what will be missing when ArcticNet goes off the map.”

Other good news was the announcement, in January, that the Amundsen would receive an $18-million boost from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to continue operating for the next five years. Marianne Falardeau-Côté, a marine biologist and PhD candidate at McGill University, has taken three trips aboard the Amundsen for her studies on fish migrations. “I always felt very privileged to work on the Amundsen. It’s an amazing research platform” she says. “The high-quality science produced on board is recognized internationally.”

But the spectre of ArcticNet’s closure persists. Of particular concern for some is what this will mean for northern and Indigenous communities. “Sharing and collaborating is particularly critical for northern communities,” says Dr. Lafrenière of Queen’s. “They simply don’t have the capacity to address these issues. Without some sort of national network or national strategy, I just don’t see how northern communities will be able to come to grips with what is happening in the Arctic.”

And it is imperative that we be there, she says. “As Canadian academics and scientists, we need to be the ones to understand what is going on under our own feet. The option is letting others come in and do the science for us. This is not the way we want to go.”

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