#UKinArctic: Imagining and digitally performing the UK as a ‘leading Arctic research nation’

By Klaus Dodds and Duncan Depledge

Earlier this month, UK scientists and organizations including the NERC Arctic Office participated in the 2017 Arctic Circle meeting. Initiated in 2013, Arctic Circle is a popular venue for Arctic and non-Arctic stakeholders to gather in Reykjavík and discuss, present and showcase their respective interests in the Arctic region.

Ever since Arctic Circle launched, the appeal for non-Arctic states has not been hard to discern. In Reykjavik, in contrast to the limited opportunities for observers to the Arctic Council to raise their voices, countries such as the UK, China, Japan, Switzerland and Germany can organize and freely participate in networking events and plenary sessions. In other words, they are anything but mere observers. We have in the past conceptualized Arctic Circle as a bazaar, a place where one might meet to promote and exchange ideas about the Arctic.

This year was no different in the sense that the NERC Arctic Office, in collaboration with the UK Science and Innovation Network (SI Network), was busy promoting UK Arctic science. In stark contrast with the rather more brash performance of a semi-official UK delegation in 2014, this time the campaign to promote and proselytize was more discreet. Three years ago, British delegates were wearing poppies and presenting under an enormous Union Jack banner. Arctic science was overtly nationalized in ways that reportedly made some participants a trifle uncomfortable. Since then, the Foreign and Commonwealth and the NERC Arctic Office (both of which recognized the value of maintaining a UK presence at Arctic Circle) have taken a more discreet approach, with a focus on promoting UK Arctic science and engagement with Arctic indigenous peoples.

The tack this October was to generate further enthusiasm for British Arctic science around a hashtag #UKinArctic – a strategy designed to promote a new digital campaign launched by the SI Network and NERC Arctic Office. Here the emphasis was placed on three things – UK physical and mobile infrastructure in the Arctic (especially the NERC station in Svalbard and the new icebreaker the Sir David Attenborough); UK scientific quality/prowess; and the UK as an international partner of choice.

However, in the future, the hashtag #UKinArctic might also be used to develop further critical thinking of what might be at stake when the UK does indeed claim to be ‘in the Arctic’ as opposed to having associations, connections, and networks.

First, a post-Brexit UK is facing renegotiating a whole series of relationships with EU partners. Future cooperation on science and technology is one area that will require further consideration. Leveraging capital, prestige and esteem from Arctic science makes sense in a context where the EU is a major funder of polar science and technology, and where international co-operation is essential.

Second, the UK’s 2013 Arctic Policy Framework is due for revision and imagining the UK as a ‘leading Arctic research nation’ is politically useful in a prevailing government culture of austerity and public sector squeeze, as well as the heavy emphasis ministers are placing on recasting the UK as ‘Global Britain’. A revised UK Arctic Policy Framework is likely to make a far more explicit play of that phrase and what it could entail.

Third, as one of the longest established observers to the Arctic Council, the UK’s commitment to Arctic science is not only something that is monitored by Arctic states but also an area of interest to emerging observer states such as China, Korea and Japan that are building their own scientific and diplomatic relationships with Arctic states. The 2017 Arctic Council Fairbanks Declaration’s reference to the ‘Agreement on Enhancing Arctic Scientific Cooperation’ will potentially produce new opportunities for observers to demonstrate their value to the Arctic Council. So when the UK claims to be ‘in the Arctic’, it is signalling both a rooted (for example, the UK research station in Svalbard) and a routed presence through intra-Arctic cooperation.

The 2017 Science Agreement’s reference to research infrastructure and access across the Arctic would also account for why the UK is so keen to promote itself as a premier partner for Arctic science and associated infrastructure. Closer cooperation with the largest Arctic state, namely Russia, is going to be the ultimate prize. The Russia branch of the SI Network is leading the #UKinArctic campaign, while the NERC Arctic Office is hosting a bilateral meeting of UK and Russian early career scientists in Cambridge later this year.

But there are other aspects of #UKinArctic that also deserve further consideration. There has been little explicit mention of Arctic social sciences thus far. The UK has long been a major international hub for work on Arctic anthropology, economics, sociology, geography and political science as well as more humanities work in literary studies, history, visual and cultural studies. Universities across the UK support British and overseas social science researchers but this has not led to the creation of a UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) as opposed to a NERC Arctic Office, or indeed produced research council funding on a scale any way comparable the £30m+ that NERC has invested in Arctic science since 2009. Furthermore, if the UK is a ‘leading Arctic research nation’ then some of that research is also bound to raise awkward questions about the (neo)colonial imprint of British Arctic science, which should not be ignored.

What happens, moreover, when the #UKinArctic is unwanted and/or unwarranted? There is a broader social science consideration here – and one in which we might recall more uncomfortable times when ‘acid rain’ from British industry was an unwelcome element in Arctic ecologies. Even looking to the future, a recent report from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme notes that the remobilization from the seabed of radioactive discharges from Sellafield that started in the 1950s will continue to contaminate the Arctic for at least the next 50 years. As the EU and China, in particular, have experienced over the last decade, there is also a case for thinking more about the different strategies the UK might take to vocalize and action its presence in the Arctic – for many years the idea, for example, of publishing an ‘Arctic strategy’ was seen by some British Foreign Office officials as unwelcome and ‘too pushy’.

Could this change if a proverbial observer ‘arms race’ places new pressures on the #UKinArctic campaign? If the UK is trying to reassure itself and prospective Arctic partners that it is not being out-paced by new Asian observers to the Arctic Council, then is the ‘policy framework’ approach still sufficient? With the Arctic states increasing their attention to the participatory record of observers, are we coming closer to the time when the UK should be thinking again about unveiling an Arctic strategy launched by a newly appointed special representative for the Arctic/Polar Regions?

 

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