Science on Ice

It's widely accepted that the health of the polar regions has profound global effects on the climate, environment, and even human society. In the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of these remote areas and their far-reaching influences, the worldwide research community is preparing for International Polar Year (IPY) in 2007. With an estimated $1 billion being spent by over 100 participating nations, this global research initiative will conduct coordinated, interdisciplinary scientific programs over 2 years at both poles.

As a circumpolar nation, Canada will be the focus of a big portion of the research, and the Canadian science community is gearing up. According to David Hik, Canada Research Chair in Northern Ecology at University of Alberta and Executive Director of the newly created Canadian IPY Secretariat, the timing could not be better.

"After the last IPY in 1957 there was a boom in polar research in Canada, but things started drying up by the 1980s leaving a generation gap to develop," says Hik. Training and recruitment in university faculties dwindled, and funding declined to the point where some researchers felt that northern science was on ice for decades. But polar science in Canada may be heating up. "By creating interest and momentum through the next IPY, I can see a real resurgence in opportunities for young scientists across Canada."

A Bright Future

Over the last 20 years, Hik has seen interest in the North diminish steadily, and fewer new scientists entering the field. "I've seen my mentors get old and gray and retire with few coming up in the ranks to replace them." But this low tide may be turning. With climate change worries and the fear of arctic melting, Canada's federal government has begun to show great interest in polar research in the past couple of years, says Hik. In the last two throne speeches, announcements were made for initial funding of a new northern strategy that includes reinvestment in science and research for Canada's three Territories. In the fall of 2004, Prime Minister Paul Martin, in his response to the throne speech, struck a similar note, asserting that Canada is indeed dedicated to supporting science and research in the North.

But will this promise translate in funding dollars? Hik thinks so. "The government now has a strong commitment to the North and so the timing of IPY is very fortuitous."

Already there is renewal of interest in arctic research at some universities, with many looking at rebuilding their northern research departments. This translates into more funding for graduate students training to work in a polar-research area "I'm seeing funding support now for my grad students that even five years ago would have been difficult to obtain," Hik points out. "Whether it's in ecosystem research, remote sensing, or working at government or academia, I really believe IPY will secure the future for these types of positions." The federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs has just upped it's funding for the Northern Scientific Training Program, which gives financial assistance to graduate students engaged in northern research, from $650,000 to over $1 million per year.


Anecdotal evidence and opinion about rising support for polar science are easy to find, but hard facts--even statistics--on current funding of northern science in Canada, are hard to come by, says Jean-Marie Beaulieu, Canadian Polar Commission's (CPC) Science Manager who is responsible for assessing the current state of Canadian polar research and knowledge. "Concrete numbers are elusive at best because research programs are scattered across the nation in various institutions, and none of the granting agencies or foundations offer separate fields in their funding applications for arctic research," he adds. "This makes it hard for anyone to pin down actual numbers that could provide an overall funding picture for Canada."

Yet there is some hard evidence of a substantial rise. According to an Indicator Report put out by the CPC on the status of polar studies in Canada, the level of academic funding and the number of polar research projects supported by the three major federal granting agencies ? the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Social Sciences Research Council (SHRC), and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) - has risen from 147 projects and $ 6.2 million in 1998 to 237 projects in 2002 totaling $10.3 million. According to NSERC sources, NSERC funding of northern science and technology had increased from $8.8 million in 2002 to $10.6 million in 2003--a 20% increase in just one year. Overall the federal government, which includes 17 agencies and departments that have interests in this category, spent $ 133 million on northern science and technology in 2003. And the number of graduate theses on polar science deposited at the National Library of Canada has increased from 86 in 1998 to 120 in 2001.

Beaulieu cautions that none of the agencies have specific funding allocated for northern research. But despite his caution, Beaulieu thinks that "we are just coming out of a lull and we hope that this IPY will be the same kind of impetus that the previous generation of researchers now nearing retirement experienced."

First Call

December 2004 saw a call go out by the IPY for pre-proposals from the Canadian science community. Essentially a letter of intent, this brief (pre-) proposal is expected to demonstrate how well a proposed project fits an emerging IPY research plan that includes physical sciences, biological sciences, engineering, and health sciences, in various combinations. Some hot topics: understanding the polar genome, arctic climate variability, and cold-region technology to benefit northern communities.

While the first submission deadline was on January 14, 2005, the Secretariat is accepting proposals into the winter and early spring of 2005. When this process is completed, Hik says, the next step will be to go to the government for funding and hook up small groups into larger clusters. "We're going to have to be specific about what we want to accomplish in IPY, pin down the scope of the work that will be done. Only then can we start getting the seed money rolling in."

Hik senses that Canada needs to get it's act together quickly on how it's going collaborate internationally, because "very soon we're going to have research groups from around the world knocking on our door, asking us, 'This is what we'd like to do; how can we do this?'"

Fifty years after the last IPY, Hik believes the signs are there for a rejuvenation of Canada's polar science community. But to make it happen, he says, Canadians have to appreciate their heritage and duty to the far north. "We have to realize that Canada's place in the world is first and foremost in the north," says Hik. "And we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to be able to provide information and address issues that are relevant to the North."

Check out the Canadian IPY Web site at and learn more about the current call for pre-proposals.

Learn more about current funding opportunities and ongoing research in northern science by visiting the Canadian Polar Commission online.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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