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On research, impact, and public relations in the ’empty’ north

Seeing one’s own research described in a news release is always an interesting experience. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s confusing, sometimes it’s frustrating. In the end, though, by reflecting on the differences between how you understand your research and how others understand it, a lot can be learned about the cultures of research and research administration. That’s what I try to achieve in this blogpost, where I reflect on the draft of a news release that I received by email this weekend from the European Commission.

First, a bit of background: During 2012 and 2013 I held a European Commission Marie Curie Fellowship at Royal Holloway, University of London with the slightly-too-cute acronym of GAIA (Global Alternatives for an Interconnected Arctic). When I accepted my current post at Durham, I terminated the fellowship early (in August 2013), and, with the input of ‘Scientist-in-Charge’ Klaus Dodds, I submitted a required report to the European Commission detailing what I had accomplished during the fellowship. Now, exactly one year (!) after the fellowship has ended, the European Commission has placed the report’s executive summary on its website and a communications officer there has drafted a news release publicising the project’s results.

Before letting it rip on the European Commission and giving ammunition to eurosceptics, I need to place a few caveats around my frustrations:

  • Admittedly, GAIA was a difficult project to describe in a news release. The research changed considerably over the course of the study, leading to results that were more diffuse than is normally the case.
  • The European Commission based their news release on the report that I had submitted to them (although, as I discuss below, they did a particularly bad job summarising it).
  • The European Commission had the decency to send me a draft, which they invited me to edit (Klaus and I subsequently returned a heavily revised version to Brussels).
  • If I joined UKIP I’d have to deport myself.

Now that that’s out of the way, I can get back to the story. I knew trouble was ahead when I opened up the file attached to the email from the European Commission and found that the news release had been given the headline:

A BETTER MODEL FOR THE ARCTIC: Viable proposals for better ways to manage the Arctic, from its sensitive ecology to its rich natural resources, have now been developed.

In fact, the project was never intended to develop a ‘model’ or ‘viable proposals’ for Arctic management, and in my report I never said that I had developed these. I do believe that there is a place for promoting model laws and governance systems; indeed, that may be one of the outputs of the Ice Law Project. However, such a project must be led by those who actually would be effected by these governance models. In part because GAIA was always conceived as a relatively top-down, analytical study, it was never intended to have prescriptive results.

However, the problem of including the local populace in determining their future ceases to be a problem if there are no people there, and this is the impression that one gets from the text of the news release. Here’s the draft news release’s opening paragraph:

Considered a unique ecosystem on Earth with its varied yet endangered biodiversity, the Arctic is also a treasure of natural resources such as gas, oil, minerals, fish and fresh water. It is also crucial for understanding and measuring climate change, an important development that could affect our world significantly. While no country owns the region, surrounding nations do have claim to certain parts, spurring several political disputes and raising important geopolitical issues.

This point is driven home in the news release’s final sentence:

All these research results will undoubtedly help encourage debate on managing the Arctic more efficiently, in a way that respects its ecology yet helps humanity access its natural resources.

In short, the Arctic is a space of nature. The management challenge is to create a sustainable system by which the region’s nature can be both conserved (’respect its ecology’) and used (‘access its resources’) for the benefit of humanity.

Who are the managers who will meet this challenge? Apparently they’re not residents of the region, since, in the European Commission’s vision, no one lives there. Rather the Arctic is an external wilderness, beyond the frontiers of European civilisation. In this external space, ‘surrounding nations…have claim[s]’ and experts working from the capitals of those nations need to manage those claims in a manner that provides a balance between conservation and extraction and that mediates between the interests of various states. The resulting regime, if designed and implemented correctly, will benefit Europe by ensuring security of investment and a predictable flow of resources. That’s why the European Commission funded an academic researcher (i.e. me) to develop models for good governance.

This all sounds great, except that a) it’s not what I did and b) it ignores the reality of the Arctic as a lived, encountered space.

In fact, the end-of-project report that I had filed with the European Commission summarised the research as being ‘on how various proposals for governing the Arctic are rooted in conceptions of its geophysical environment’. But the European Commission’s communication office turned out a news release that summarised the project as being about constructing governance models that could be employed to facilitate sustainable resource extraction.

Why the change in emphasis? Partly, I think the European Commission’s misrepresentation of the project stems from the way in which policy questions concerning nature are understood as inevitably revolving around the need to achieve a balance between resource extraction (short-term gain) and conservation (which is understood as enabling long-term gain). The communications officer simply overlooked the fact that my project, although attentive to the region’s nature, really wasn’t about this resource extraction – ecosystem conservation trade-off.

But I also think the recasting of my project stemmed from how research officers measure ‘results’. A scenario or a model that may be directly taken up by policy makers is a result; an insight whose impact may be only indirect is not. Thus, in order to reference GAIA as a successful investment of European Commission funds, the communications officer changed it from being a project that sought to gain insights that could inform policy into one that sought to construct models that could become policy.

This is particularly clear in the way in which the news release portrayed work that Klaus and I did on the changing structure of the Arctic Council. In the report that I submitted to the European Commission, I described this research as being ‘on the transformation of the Arctic Council into a state-based organization’. In the news release, however, it was reported that ‘the team explored ways of transforming the Arctic Council into a state-based organisation.’ The rephrasing is subtle, but it ascribes to us an activist agenda that we certainly did not have (and that I am not at all sure that we would support). Our aim was to understand how the Arctic Council was being transformed and to speculate about its implications, not to develop strategies for pushing the process along.

At one level I appreciate the European Commission’s presumption that research is directly dedicated to making a difference. But it seems like the European Commission’s vision of ‘research’ is a consulting job where the researcher is dedicated to helping a ‘client’ work toward a pre-determined ‘end’ (whether that client is the European Commision, the Arctic Council, or the community of nations and whether that end is achieving the sustainable commodification of nature or the transformation of the Arctic Council into a state-based organisation). If research gets redefined as consulting then not only do we neglect pure, non-applied research. We also fail to account for interested parties who may not be our ‘clients’ or who might not fit into the ‘clients” vision: in this case, peoples of the North who might not be formally involved in constructing state-based ‘management’ and ‘governance’ initiatives.

In the end, this comes down to a question of what we mean by ‘impact’. As John Lennon said, ‘We all want to change the world’. But as we seek ‘impact’ we all too often forget that thoughts can be impacted (and have impact) as well. And in a world where the European Commission can forget four million Arctic residents, including 400,00 in northern Sweden and northern Finland who are actually in the EU, it’s quite possible that we first need to change how we think before proposing revisions to governance systems and management policies.

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One comment on “On research, impact, and public relations in the ’empty’ north

  1. […] right when the G&S programme was also starting up. Taking things full circle, in my blogpost On research, impact, and public relations in the ‘empty’ north I reflect on how the European Commission described the project and what this tells us about the […]

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