Are polar researchers diplomats? A run-through of science diplomacy in polar regions - Edu Arctic

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Another face of polar research

The history of polar research is, among other things, the history of national aspirations of countries which have over the years organized and supported expeditions to ice-bound edges of the world.

These bold endeavours were inspired not only by the desire to broaden the knowledge of the world’s geography or find new shipping routes and thus reap substantial profits, but also by more or less overt political motives. After all, the expeditions often involved taking possession of lands or islands which had not been claimed before and were therefore considered no man’s land. It’s worth mentioning, however, that while some of these areas were indeed uninhabited, many – in the Far North, at least – had long been populated or seasonally used by indigenous peoples.

The age of conquest and colonization, characterized by the unconstrained exploitation of polar resources, was followed by a period of intense competition for prestige and international acclaim of participating countries. The most exciting manifestation of this competition was the race for the poles, which promised fame and glory not just to expedition members, but also to countries, whose flags they proudly planted in more and more remote corners of the globe. The public excitement generated by the race was so great that it spread far beyond the borders of the home countries of successive polar daredevils and soon engulfed much of the world.

In the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, the rivalry among polar expeditions was often recounted using not only sports, but also military terminology, which makes it quite clear that the political significance of these endeavours was enormous. As a result, polar explorers were seen as much more than just researchers. They were national heroes, whose victories and defeats were of vital importance in the international arena. In fact, contemporary governments seemed to be just a step away from starting to treat polar expeditions as semi-diplomatic missions and polar explorers – as special envoys.


Fridtjof Nansen – the first polar diplomat

One of the most famous explorers whose private affairs and scientific achievements became tightly intertwined with the history of his country was Fridtjof Nansen – a bold Norwegian polar researcher vigorously popularizing oceanographic knowledge and a charismatic social activist involved in social matters in Norway and abroad. His many adventures and scientific passions, abundant experience and extraordinary attitude could easily be made into a film that would both excite and inspire. After his 19th century successes in the Arctic, Nansen became Norway’s national icon, all the more valuable as his worldwide popularity helped to build up a positive image of a country that was at the time aiming for independence. Nansen’s international fame, prestige and networking connections formed as a result of his scientific achievements proved invaluable in 1905, when Norway made a somewhat risky, but ultimately successful attempt to dissolve its union with Sweden. Many Norwegians allegedly wanted Nansen to take the throne of their newly independent country, but this was not to

Afterwards, Nansen carried on with his oceanographic research and led expeditions to Siberia and the Far East (1910–1914). This kept him busy until the outbreak of WWI, when he returned to politics. First of all, the Norwegian government charged Nansen with a key task of negotiating with the United States the issue of food exports and, above all, the export of grain to Norway. Later, Nansen was appointed the head of the Norwegian delegation with the League of Nations in Geneva, at which point the famous explorer concentrated most of his efforts on the protection of prisoners of war and refugees, as well as on a fight against hunger. He negotiated with the Russian the terms and logistics of repatriating about 500 000 soldiers from the German and Austro-Hungarian army (even though Russia did not at the time acknowledge the League of Nations), helped refugees from Soviet Russia and – as a representative of the International Red Cross – organized aid for famine-stricken Ukraine. What earned him particular acclaim was his activity as the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (since 1920). It was at this point in his career that Nansen put forward a proposal which led to the introduction in 1922 of internationally recognized war refugee travel documents, known as Nansen passports. If this wasn’t impressive enough, Nansen complemented his activity with the League of Nations with independent relief work, which he lent his name to. In recognition of his remarkable efforts, in 1922 Fridtjof Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he promptly donated to charity.


Antarctic diplomats

Another interesting illustration of how the world of science interweaves with the world of diplomacy is the history of the Antarctic. In the year 1950, the International Council for Science, which was a global non-governmental organization set up in 1931 to support international cooperation for the development of science, was considering the possibility of organizing the third International Polar Year. As was the case in 1882/83 and 1932/33, the aim of the project was to coordinate a series of research expeditions, whose purpose was to collect information on the Earth’s polar regions. Ultimately, following the proposal of the World’s Meteorological Organization, the concept of an International Polar Year was expanded to include the entire planet and thus changed into an International Geophysical Year (1957/58). The enterprise brought together several thousand researchers from 66 countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain and immediately turned out to be a tremendous success. This led to the formation of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), set up in autumn 1957 to facilitate the exchange of scientific information on the Antarctic between the Committee’s members.

An even more important outcome of polar research conducted back then in the Antarctic was the signing in 1959 of the Antarctic Treaty, which called for joint scientific research in the Antarctic and the peaceful use of the continent. Since then, thanks to international cooperation, various measures have been introduced to protect the natural environment of the Antarctic, preserve cultural monuments, fauna and flora. The treaty has so far been signed by 41 countries and the international research cooperation continues to develop. As the necessary condition to become a member of the Antarctic Treaty System is for the country to be engaged in scientific research in Antarctica, it seems justified to claim that science diplomacy was born out of research cooperation around the South Pole. The experience gained on this occasion was drawn upon 40 years later, in 1991, when – again as a result of direct interactions between scientists – the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) was established, followed shortly by a range of other initiatives. The efforts reached their culmination in 1996 with the formation of the Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation among the Arctic states and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.


What is science diplomacy?

Science diplomacy deals with the relationships between scientists, politicians and diplomats, and is usually divided into three separate strands: (1) science in diplomacy, (2) diplomacy for science and (3) science for diplomacy.

The first of these strands is all about making use of scientific achievements to support foreign and international politics by providing politicians with first-rate scientific knowledge from independent researchers (organized into international expert panels or national scientific bodies) to enable and facilitate optimal decision-making. This type of cooperation, which is in fact no different from expert consulting, requires politicians to be able to comprehend and take in scientific facts, while researchers must adopt an appropriate attitude and demonstrate good communication skills. The effectiveness of science in diplomacy is therefore dependent on mutual understanding of the differences existing between the fields of politics and science, and the effective transfer of relevant knowledge in order to address key social issues of international nature. A good example of this type of cooperation is the activity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The second aspect of science diplomacy, namely diplomacy for science, is the use of foreign policy initiatives to further and facilitate international scientific collaboration. It requires decision-makers and diplomats to devote their time and effort to things like determining research priorities or supporting collaboration between specific research centres or even individual researchers, as there are still many obstacles in the way of free scientific collaboration. Diplomacy for science is meant to encourage scientific growth, independent of national factors and limitations. A good example of this kind of activity with regard to polar regions is the Arctic Science Ministerial, held since 2016, which brings together science ministers from a number of countries to discuss the issue of scientific research in the Arctic.

The last strand of science diplomacy, which is to say, science for diplomacy, concerns the use of science in international relations, usually for their improvement and development. This form of interaction between researchers, politicians and diplomats is part of the country’s soft power used to advance diplomatic objectives. In other words, science for diplomacy is an example of a country’s non-military resource and a means for exerting impact in the context of international relationships. Standard tools used in thus understood science diplomacy include: (1) research collaboration agreements, (2) new scientific institutions, academic and education scholarships, (3) the so-called track two diplomacy, and (4) scientific events, such as festivals, congresses and exhibitions.


Polar science diplomacy in time of war

The role of scientific collaboration in international relations of today is also visible in the context of the tragic events following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. Found among the many sanctions imposed on Russia by the countries of the West is breaking off or severely limiting all contact between scientific and research institutions and communities operating in the West and their Russian counterparts. In the context of Arctic research, this constitutes a major challenge. With half of the Arctic located within the Russian territory, suspending scientific collaboration with Russia brought to a sudden halt many projects executed in Russia by non-Russian researchers or involving collaboration with Russian partners. Some Russian initiatives funded or co-funded by partners from outside the country must also have been suspended or cancelled.

Discussions as to if, when and how to resume this collaboration will take place in the coming months or even years, with organizations such as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) providing a useful discussion forum. All we can do is to hope that the universal language of science and the prospect of scientific developments for the advancement of all humanity will help restore trust and resume collaboration, first in the field of science and then in diplomacy and politics. It’s worth every effort to ensure that – in keeping with the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen – polar stations and expeditions may continue to serve the function of scientific embassies and mini-platforms facilitating communication across divisions and promoting global peace.

Text: dr hab. Michał Łuszczuk, English translation: Barbara Jóźwiak

Photo: Amundsen-scott-south_pole_station_2007.jpg: U.S. Antarctic Program, National Science Foundation