A Historic Week for Arctic Research in Washington, D.C., 27-29 September 2016

By: Robert H. Rich, Ph.D., CAE, ARCUS Executive Director

The Obama administration has demonstrated strong interest in the Arctic through development of a pioneering National Strategy for the Arctic Region, establishment of an Arctic Executive Steering Committee, convening of the international GLACIER Conference in Alaska last summer, and the President's trip above the Arctic Circle, the first time ever by a sitting President.

This series of actions reached a culminating point when the White House invited nations engaged in Arctic research to the first-ever Arctic Science Ministerial meeting on 28 September in the Indian Treaty Room in the Eisenhower Executive Office. This historic event brought together leaders from the eight Arctic nations and many others, 25 in all, along with circumpolar indigenous groups and top U.S. Arctic officials. It was chaired by Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren and co-chaired by Fran Ulmer, Chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. The meeting focused on four key themes, to which the organizers asked U.S. agencies and participating governments to suggest possible areas for cooperation. These included science; Arctic observing; community resilience; and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.

Each minister participating gave a presentation in one of the four theme areas and then discussion to identify additional areas of cooperation took place. The ministers agreed to a Joint Statement and released a Fact Sheet of new initiatives, some cooperative, to which they are committed. We also expect a summary of existing Arctic research initiatives by each participating country to be released soon on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) website.

The afternoon before the Ministerial, Presidential Science Advisor Dr. John Holdren hosted Alaska Native and circumpolar Indigenous leaders at the White House for a listening session to inform the ministerial discussions. That evening, 340 key Arctic research stakeholders attended a kickoff reception at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where I was able to attend and represent ARCUS. In addition to Dr. Holdren, speakers included Ann Bancroft (who is the first woman to trek to the North Pole), Admiral Robert Papp (U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic), and Alaska Lt. Governor Byron Mallott (who provided an Alaska Native invocation).

On 27 September, ARCUS hosted an international side event focused on STEM education and citizen empowerment at our D.C. office. Co-organizers with us included the Arctic Portal, the Woods Hole Research Center, Arctic 21 (an ad hoc coalition of NGOs concerned with climate change in the Arctic), and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. Our speakers included Ambassador Mark Brzezinski (Executive Director of the Arctic Executive Steering Committee), who provided a briefing on the Ministerial plans. We held two panels: one focused on using Arctic science as a vehicle to encourage interest in STEM education, and the other focused on empowering Arctic communities through research and STEM education. A recording of the event and other resource materials are available online here.

Following the panels, we hosted many hands-on activities and displays that use the Arctic to inspire STEM education, and we also featured the influential ARCUS PolarTREC program. The displays were organized by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University.

On 29 September, the U.S. Arctic Research Commission met and considered the results of the Ministerial. Generally, Commissioners were excited and optimistic about how the Ministerial had brought high-level interest and support to the key needs of Arctic research. Outside reaction from the research community was guardedly optimistic, as described in an Eos article. I mentioned that getting top science advisors to say that Arctic research is a priority for their country will go a long way, but the next crucial step is to follow up with real action and real implementation and real investment.

Further reactions that I've since heard from Arctic research stakeholders in the U.S. and worldwide suggested that more social science should have been considered, since human factors are integral to fully understanding Arctic change. Also, there is some concern that initiatives resulting from the Ministerial may be lost in the Presidential transition in January. It is clear, however, that this event raised awareness of the importance of Arctic research among the participating ministers and to some extent among the U.S. and global public. It also allowed for the visible endorsement by many nations of a number of cooperative projects intended to advance each of the four themes.

The organizers of the Ministerial will be holding an implementation conversation among the countries involved in October, according to Ambassador Brzezinski. Many of the projects proposed still need quite a bit of development. ARCUS will be monitoring these and attempting to bring in perspectives from the broader Arctic research community as appropriate. The European Union has agreed to hold a second Arctic Science Ministerial meeting in 2018.

Please feel free to email me at bob [at] arcus.org if you have ideas for how ARCUS might best support connections across national boundaries to advance Arctic research in collaboration with our government and other partners.

See also The First Meeting of the Arctic Science Ministers: A SEARCH Perspective.