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The Arctic Science Agreement Propels Science Diplomacy

Article by Paul Berkman in Science: Why Arctic Science Agreement is a milestone

Global geopolitics are fueling the renewal of East-West tensions, with deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations in the wake of conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, issues involving cyber-security, and broader concerns about expanding militarization. Against this backdrop, the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, signed on 11 May 2017 by foreign ministers of the eight Arctic States, including the U.S. and Russia, as well as Greenland and the Faroe Islands, is a milestone. This “Arctic Science Agreement” is a strong signal reaffirming the global relevance of science as a tool of diplomacy, reflecting a common interest to promote scientific cooperation even when diplomatic channels among nations are unstable (1–3). It provides a framework for enhancing the efforts of scientists working on cutting-edge issues, but translating the general language of the agreement into enhanced action requires further attention, collaboration, and effort among diplomats and scientists to ensure its successful implementation. With the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) convening the International Science Initiative in the Russian Arctic (ISIRA) at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow next week, we highlight steps to advance science, its contributions to informed decision-making, and its role in maintaining the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation.

Strengthening Arctic Science
Negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council through a process co-led by Russia and the United States, the agreement recognizes first “the importance of maintaining peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.” This legally binding agreement aims to enhance scientific cooperation by “removing obstacles” (4) and by providing a basic road map and commitment to facilitate consistent access for marine, terrestrial, and atmospheric research on a pan-Arctic scale.

The agreement aims to improve use of existing infrastructures that were previously unavailable; enable new movement of researchers, students, equipment, and materials; promote sharing of data and metadata in ways that were not previously possible; and encourage holders of traditional and local knowledge to participate in scientific activities across territories (see the map). The science community, working through the organizations representing it in the Arctic Council, including IASC, the University of the Arctic (UArctic), and the International Arctic Social Sciences Association (IASSA), as well as through separate meetings of science ministers, already has identified substantive priorities for the next phase of Arctic research (5).

Concrete examples of improvements needed to achieve success with the agreement would be to (i) establish procedures to expedite the granting of visas and permits for accessing field sites; (ii) digitize historic and other data from hard-copy formats and create shared platforms for searching data located in a variety of repositories, including coordination with the Arctic Data Committee and Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks; (iii) use organizations mentioned in the agreement to set up and monitor research partnerships across borders; (iv) increase support for field and summer schools and related means for training the next generation of Arctic scientists; (v) promote well-formulated comparative studies designed to examine common issues at multiple locations across the Arctic; (vi) maximize the use of icebreakers and other forms of infrastructure for scientific purposes; and (vii) create innovative venues that integrate natural and social sciences along with indigenous knowledge to address common concerns.

Some of these measures will require action on the part of officials in foreign ministries; others can be handled best through organizations representing the science community. Each of the signatories can and should designate an official point of contact with a mandate to assist with the implementation of the agreement, monitor progress regarding efforts to remove obstacles, and make recommendations for the adoption of additional measures as needed.

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