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White coats versus the White House

Foregrounder | American scientists are digging their heels in against Donald Trump
Standing room only (Photo: Peg Hunter)

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iAbout Press releases

As part of our continuing efforts to bring you as much information about our region as possible we offer readers a press release service that allows private firms, public agencies, non-governmental organisations and other groups to submit relevant press releases on our website.

All press releases in this section are published in their full length and have not been edited.

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Each week, The Arctic Journal’s Foregrounder takes up an event or issue that we expect to be reading more about during the week ahead. If you have an event you think should be included next week, please contact us. 

Other topics we'll be paying attention to this week: 

Constitution I: The selection last week of Lars-Emil Johansen, the speaker of the national assembly, to head Greenland’s constitutional commission signals that preparations for the panel to begin its work have headed into their final phase.

Constitution II: Also in the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroe Islands have seen their vote to adopt a constitution of their own pushed back from autumn 2017 to spring of 2018. The delay will give the government more time to pull together a coalition in support of the measure.

Tufts University, near Boston, hosts the fourth annual Fletcher Arctic Conference, a TEDx-style event that showcases the ideas, stories and initiatives of people who live and work in the Arctic. February 17-18

As a rule, the Munich Security Conference has bigger issues to take up than the Arctic. That does not mean the organisers and participants of what is considered to be one of the most important gatherings of security-policy decision-makers are unaware of the region. A report, ‘The Arctic: Tempers Rising?’, published on the organisation’s website on January 5, concludes that “Arctic affairs have become a matter of global attention”. It will be worth watching to see whether they have the conference’s attention as well. READ MORE: The week of the hawk

Video from the second day of Arctic Frontiers. Mr Balton’s presentation begins after about 24 minutes

Plenty of speculation has gone into what sort of policy, if any, Donald Trump will have towards the Arctic. Cooler heads suggest status quo is most likely. “If past is prologue, my supposition is that US policy in the Arctic is not likely to change in the next few years,” David Balton, a senior US diplomat and the chair of the Arctic Council’s senior Arctic officials, said on January 25, during Arctic Frontiers, a big conference. (See video at right.)

Mr Balton bases his analysis on two decades of experience in the federal government. During this time he has served under four presidents, but seen very few changes in America’s approach to the region.

That Mr Trump may prove somewhat harder to read than his predecessors, particularly when it comes to science, was underscored later that same day, when the United States Arctic Research Council, which advises the White House and Congress, posted to social media an announcement that its accounts were “going on hiatus”.

The update was removed a few hours later and replaced by one stating that the outfit’s on-line activities would continue as before. Although the USARC did not respond to a request to explain what prompted the cryptic messages, the episode came in the wake of incidents involving other federal agencies that had been told by the new administration to curtail work related to climate change.

Scientists have already taken action to express their dissatisfaction to this type of meddling by the White House. This week may see more: as many as 10,000 scientists from scores of countries will gather in Boston starting on February 16 for the five-day Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a non-profit group whose primary goals are to promote co-operation among scientists and defend scientific freedom.

Such gatherings focus on all aspects of science, but, this year’s theme, ‘serving society through science policy’, appears to point in the direction of Washington and Mr Trump.

“Science policy can provide the best available evidence to policy-makers, community leaders and citizens,” the meeting’s promotional material states.

SEE RELATED: As interest in UN climate meeting cools, Arctic meltdown goes on

So far, scientists have needed little urging to air their concerns. On December 13, members of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest organisation for earth scientists, used their own annual meeting to demonstrate against Mr Trump’s choices of climate-change sceptics to top administration positions (pictured above). On April 22, Earth Day, scientists are planning a demonstration they call a March for Science.

Until then, there is little to indicate they will be sitting idly by. In the weeks leading up to Mr Trump’s inauguration, scientists at the EPA, the environmental regulators, reportedly took pre-emptive efforts by copying and storing information related to climate change on non-government computers. On January 24, Nasa, the space agency, released 35 images documenting the effects of a changing climate.

US agencies dealing with science say it is still too early to tell how Arctic science will fare under the Trump administration. Some, for example, note with relief that despite the White House eliminating the section of its website relating to climate, the State Department still has slots for special envoys for climate change and for the Arctic. Both positions remain vacant, however, and the fear is they will not be filled.

Other at-risk agencies have had duplicate social-media accounts made up in their names, to be used in the event the official accounts are gagged or shut down. Not long after after the USARC announced it was going away, an “alternate” Twitter account had been created. 

SEE RELATED: Sarah’s salvation

The account describes itself as “the unofficial #resistance team of the US Arctic Research Commission.” To date, it has 53,000 followers. Proponents of Arctic science may wish that it become more active: the official account has 4,000 followers.

Jeremy Mathis, the director of Arctic research for Noaa, a science agency, suggests these types of tactics may prove unnecessary once the dust kicked up by the presidential transition settles.

While he believes US Arctic science benefitted from the attention it received from the Obama administration, he reckons the extreme changes the region has seen in recent years have been more important for directing the attention of policy-makers North. He expects the Trump administration can also be convinced to do so, but only if scientists can put it in terms the president and his team understands. 

On the one hand, he explains, this means making it clear that changes in the Arctic have implications for things like weather and infrastructure in the continental US. On the other hand, scientists must make clear that there are gains to be had in the form of shipping and improved access to natural resources, but that this can only happen if scientists are given the chance to understand the changes that are taking place.

“Our priorities won't be changing,” Mr Mathis says, “but we will be thinking more strategically about how we talking about them.”

The secret to scientific success, then, may not be what you know, but how you present it.