From the Magazine

FROM THE MAGAZINE – Strengthening the voices of Northerners in Arctic science

This Letter From the Editors appears in the March 2015 issue of Northern Public Affairs.

University research is a public enterprise. Northerners, like all Canadians, fund this research on the expectation that it will help us solve society’s problems, lead to new innovations, and contribute to our collective stock of knowledge.

Over the next three years, millions of dollars will be spent on Arctic research and monitoring as a result of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station’s Science and Technology program. Over the next three years, this program will add $7 million to the funding already available to the economists, geologists, anthropologists, biologists, and others who base their work on, and in, the North.

When CHARS received Royal Assent in December 2014, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt stated it would “strengthen the voice of Northerners in Arctic science and technology at home and around the world.”

This statement seems consistent with an important if not controversial trend in Northern research. Many Northerners, Indigenous peoples, and researchers are committed to a particular practice of research — one that values community engagement while respecting intellectual property rights and the institutions that have developed to ensure Indigenous communities are able to exercise a measure of control in the research process.

But as Nicholas Brunet points out in his article, not all research will be aligned with community priorities or interests. For example, some research may be considered too politically sensitive or controversial, while some may be seen as esoteric, irrelevant, intrusive, or simply not worth the time to consider. In these cases, important and perhaps difficult questions need to be asked by all those involved about the value of this research and whether and how it should be carried out, especially if it meets with local resistance.

Should the research be abandoned? Should it be modified to align with the needs of a particular group? Or are there good reasons to continue the research, perhaps, without willing partners or in the absence of community support for the project?

One would expect different answers for every circumstance, but the factors to consider from the researcher’s point of view should be transparent. For most academics, especially those in their early and mid careers, what matters most for their material and professional well-being is the number of articles they publish in peer reviewed journals and the feedback they get from their peers. These incentives must be weighed against the risks and benefits to the Northern and scholarly communities. By any standard these are complex value judgments.

Equally important are questions about the kinds of supports researchers and communities receive to help make the gathering and exchange of information meaningful and mutually advantageous. Under current territorial research licensing regimes, researchers are required to demonstrate that they have actively sought community approval of their proposed project, and that they have considered how their research might benefit participants and the community. Dozens of research projects are licensed every year, placing a large burden on communities to review proposals and make decisions about which ones to support, sometimes with very limited information about the researcher and the project itself.

Of course there are important historical reasons why these licensing regimes exist. The legacy of researchers extracting information from Indigenous communities through exploitative practices is well known, and skepticism about the value of research and researchers continues today. Research licensing regimes were established, in part, to address power imbalances between researchers and communities, and to encourage researchers to think more about the potential impacts (positive and negative) that their work could have on the communities and people they were studying. Indigenous organizations and academic bodies have augmented these regimes with ethical principles and best practices for researchers to follow.

As research methods evolve and new generations of researchers, including Indigenous researchers, are trained in these methods, the licensing regimes may also have to adapt, perhaps offering more or different supports to communities so that they can critically engage with research proposals that may no longer be coming just from southern researchers, and that require substantially more community input.

Improving communication between researchers and Northern stakeholders is one way to address many of the challenges discussed above. Here we mean not only the kind of person-to-person interaction that is common when researchers travel North or send updates by email or phone, but also the density of networked, online interactions that could enable the myriad learning opportunities and resources that ought to exist as a reflection of the vast amount of time and energy researchers and their collaborators are themselves putting into their work.

What do we mean by improved communication? At the most basic level, researchers and community members alike need to learn how to speak and listen in new ways, building supports for each other over time and through space as knowledge is created and exchanged.

This is not a linear process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. One of the most important supports — trust — can easily be lost if, for example, researchers over-sell the potential benefits of their work to communities or fail to follow through on commitments.

We often think that effective knowledge exchange begins as research is being designed. But here there are several barriers: In some cases there may not be significant community interest in the project at the outset, or capacity in a particular community to meaningfully participate in research design. Researchers also face the high cost of travel to the North, and university research ethics and funding timelines may preclude “preliminary fieldwork.”

Providing supports to communities so that communication with non-resident researchers can develop early on and be maintained throughout the process is critical to developing meaningful knowledge exchange. This could mean training a research officer (perhaps part-time) in each community who would serve as a liaison to facilitate communication, help local organizations identify researchers to work with, and assist researchers in coordinating their projects.

The Government of Canada has acknowledged a gap in the availability of tools that facilitate knowledge exchange in the Arctic. To help with continuity, provide opportunities for ongoing, two-way interactions, and to leverage the collective efforts of researchers and Northern communities over time, digital networks and innovative media could provide a rich source of additional support.

IsumaTV’s Digital Indigenous Democracy project, featured in the spring 2012 issue of Northern Public Affairs, is an example of one such digital network. Combining relatively inexpensive hardware, a simple software interface, and training for community members in media production and broadcasting, DID was able to connect researchers and community members from across the Northern Qikiqtani region of Baffin Island in real time to discuss concerns with the Mary River Project.

Another example is the university-based ResearchImpact, a pan-Canadian network of 11 universities “committed to maximizing the impact of academic research for the social, economic, environmental, and health benefits of Canadians.” ResearchImpact supports knowledge mobilization online by developing and sharing best practices, services, and tools, including a blog, plain language research summaries, and knowledge mobilization guides.

We raise these examples not because we think they answer the challenges of Arctic research in and of themselves, but because they highlight the role of knowledge brokers in mobilizing and translating knowledge.

Knowledge brokers are people or organizations with expertise working at the interface between academic research and the public. They are engaged across projects and disciplines, and have the skills and resources available to facilitate meaningful interactions between researchers and Northern stakeholders, either in person or online.

In the North, the Yukon Research Centre, the Aurora Research Institute, and the Nunavut Research Institute fill this role, as do some Indigenous organizations and other regional or discipline specific NGOs and initiatives. CHARS has yet to demonstrate how it will contribute to knowledge exchange at a pan-Northern, multi-disciplinary scale.

In the south, the Arctic Institute of North America plays a long-standing role in acquiring, preserving, and disseminating research about the Arctic. More recently ArcticNet has created additional opportunities for North-South collaboration. But the bulk of the knowledge translation work remains the responsibility of researchers on a project by project basis.

This could be the weakest point in the Northern research system. Canadian researchers can access limited funding for this work, and success depends to a great extent on the researchers themselves, who may or may not have the time, interest, or skills to communicate meaningfully with Northerners. The barriers here are substantial and have the potential to reproduce the unequal power relations Northerners no longer tolerate.

With the arrival of CHARS, it is time for researchers and Northern stakeholders to come together to discuss these issues and find solutions that will work. Otherwise, we fear the good efforts that are already being put into knowledge translation will remain insufficient.◉

Joshua Gladstone is Founding Editor of Northern Public Affairs. He is a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

Sheena Kennedy Dalseg is Founding Editor of Northern Public Affairs. She is a PhD Candidate in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.

Photo credit: CambridgeBayWeather under a Creative Commons license.

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