An Academic in Ottawa

These days, when glaciologist Peter Adams is not visiting scientific outposts in the Canadian High Artic, he's focused on his involvement in postsecondary education and research at the federal level.

An ice expert turned politician, Adams is well respected in his caucus--the Government Caucus on Post-Secondary Education and Research--and is a leading expert in his field, as well as a life-long community activist. Born in the United Kingdom, he earned his B.A. at the University of Sheffield and then moved to Canada to complete his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in glaciology at McGill University. Much of his research career has focused on glaciers and lake ice, work that is highly interdisciplinary in nature, incorporating geology, physics, and meteorology.

The first of several milestones in his research career was "without a doubt" his graduate work with the McGill Axel Heiberg Expedition in 1959. "I spent a total of 10 months on Axel Heiberg Island and most of that time was spent living on a glacier. It was remarkable."

Adams went on to become an assistant professor and director of the McGill Sub-Artic Research Laboratory, which was an outpost at the mining town of Schefferville on the Quebec-Labrador border. He and four master's degree students ran a weather station and conducted a series of research projects on ice and permafrost. As it turns out, these were the most challenging years of his research career. "We were there 12 months of the year in a climate much more severe than Axel Heiberg," he recalls, working on the lakes and in the mines all winter, "but it was an extraordinary career opportunity." During that time, Adams and his wife managed to raise a family in a house attached to the laboratory by a tunnel. "Every year the house was completely buried in snow."

Adams's 22-year academic career at Trent University began in 1968, when he was founding chair of the department of geography--a position that was to set the stage for his future political career. "It was really a rare and extraordinary experience to be able to start a department from scratch with the enormous support that we had," says Adams.

As his academic career at Trent evolved over the following 2 decades, Adams became increasingly engaged with the local community: "I became involved in public affairs, like sports and a program called Energy Savers in Peterborough, and I was chair for the United Way--all of those things that you could do in a small community." An accomplished athlete who is often seen jogging through downtown Peterborough, Adams established significant ties with sports and athletics in the region as well. While he admits he "had no interest in politics" before joining Trent, the strong link between the university and the community, and his track record as a community activist, eventually led him into politics. "One day somebody from one of the parties said to me 'Why don't you think of running?' By then I had lobbied for things at Trent and had lobbied for schools and just kind of got sucked into it."

The turning point came in 1987 when he was elected to the provincial parliament. "Moving from the academic environment and all of its politics to representing a community ... was an amazing thing and a big step in my career," he relates. It wasn't until he was elected to the House of Commons in 1993 that he started winding down his academic career in favour of politics, although not completely; Adams still publishes books and refereed papers based on his analysis of data that his colleagues continue to gather in the north. And last year, he was honoured to be chosen as the Trent University Northern Chair, which involves giving a series of public lectures focusing on the north, its peoples, lands, society, and science.

"Looking back at my federal career since 1993, I suppose I was a fairly competent, well-tuned in person, but I really didn't know how to function as a Member of Parliament effectively," he confesses. "This caucus is sort of my hobby," he adds, "and now I feel that I make things happen and act effectively."

Read an account of how Peter Adams's behind-the-scenes activities helped shape Canada's research budget.

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