How Arctic Science Collaborations Can Bolster Diplomacy

The path in between may be blocked by suspiciously dark ice, but there is a rainbow at the end of Arctic scientific research collaborations. Mikhail Varentsov/Shutterstock

When nations are at war, or just in hostile stand-offs, scientists often collaborate across national boundaries, sometimes helping improve relations more widely. A report on Arctic research collaborations argues these represent an opportunity both for science and diplomacy. As civility between governments appears to have gone missing, perhaps scientists can fill some of the gap.

In May 2017 foreign ministers from the eight states extending into the Arctic signed the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation. For a region under threat from climate change and pollutants emitted far away from it, such cooperation is vital. Scientists from four of those countries, including the US and Russia, have published a paper in Science on the Agreement's history and potential.

The paper argues that for scientific cooperation to work governments need 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.” Along with projects more specific to Arctic studies (such as collaborative use of icebreakers), precedents that can extend outside science are needed, the authors argue. International treaties also protect scientists from the whims of governments that might otherwise suddenly cut funding.

Where other attempts at diplomacy are often nothing more than fine words, the Agreement is legally binding on its parties, including those currently applying sanctions to each other.

The Agreement builds on the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, signed at the height of the Cold War, which designated 7 percent of the planet to “peaceful purposes only”, a commitment that has largely been kept. Signatory nations have been less reliable on the 1967 treaty on the peaceful use of outer space, sometimes investigating the practicality of putting weapons into space. Still, the treaty has made possible projects like the International Space Station, and at least slowed the rush to killer satellites.

The philosophy that “Science knows no country” was articulated by Louis Pasteur, but the idea is older. Napoleon awarded a medal to the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy, while France and Britain were at war. More than a century later, while Germany and Britain had barely left the worst war the world had then known, it was a British scientist, Sir Arthur Eddington, who provided experimental support for Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, at that time widely considered too strange to be true.

Pasteur said; “Knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence.” Until more world leaders agree, getting them to sign treaties on scientific cooperation may help.

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