Open range. Canada's vast Northwest Territories would provide the setting for an ambitious Arctic research initiative.

Christina Stachulak/Council of Canadian Academies

A Chilly Reception

The vision is bold and admirable. But Canada's plans for a major Arctic research initiative are entirely inadequate. That's the blunt verdict today from a blue-chip international panel asked to review the project.

The Canadian Arctic Research Initiative (CARI), complete with research programs and a world-class research station, was pegged as a government priority by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October 2007. It's part of a larger northern strategy aimed at asserting sovereignty and promoting economic development in the region. But Harper didn't provide any details about what it would do or how the science would be carried out.

The review by the 13-member panel, assembled by the Council of Canadian Academies and led by Elizabeth Dowdeswell, a former U.N. under-secretary general and chair of the council's scientific advisory committee, is part of an ongoing effort to flesh out that vision. The panel said the government needs to have a better idea of what it wants to achieve.

"Canada has acquired a reputation among Arctic nations for failing to match words with deeds," declares the final report. In particular, the panel found fault with the four priorities established after an extensive consultative process this year with academia, the private sector, and aboriginal organizations. The priorities--sustainable resource development, environmental science and stewardship, climate change, and healthy and sustainable communities--"are too general to provide practical direction over time," it notes.

One big problem, says the expert panel, is that those priorities are really themes rather than a research agenda. "They do not take full advantage of Canada's opportunities, and do not fully respond to Canada's international obligations with respect to Arctic science," it continues. At the same time, the panel writes, the government should consider expanding those priorities to include baseline monitoring of environmental phenomena and technologies related to data collection, remote sensing, and telemedicine.

Equally woolly, the panel says, are Canada's plans for the physical infrastructure to be associated with the initiative. Among options proposed was a single station, something more virtual in nature, or a "hub and spoke model," with a main, central facility and a bushel of smaller, strategically situated scientific sites. The last is probably the best option, the report says. The experts also implore the government to provide adequate long-term funding for the initiative and to give it a kick-start with "one or more long-term core programs."

That advice resonates with Danielle Labonté, an administrator with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada who's leading the government's effort to define and implement CARI. At a briefing this week before a committee that advises the U.S. National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, Labonté explained that CARI "needs to be a network that connects many activities spanning the entire region. One building won't do it." The government has not yet assigned the project a budget or set a timetable for completion, although Labonté said that half a dozen communities have already expressed interest in hosting the central facility.


  • The account of the international panel report on Canada's proposed Arctic Research Initiative (CARI) may have created a misleading impression of the panel's actual conclusions. The 13-person independent panel of experts, which I had the privilege of chairing, did not conclude that "Canada's plans for a major Arctic research initiative are entirely inadequate."

The panel, which was assembled by the Council of Canadian Academies at the request of the Government of Canada, was asked to provide an international perspective on reports and consultations undertaken to begin conceptualization of this important initiative. (CARI is not expected to be fully operational for about ten years.)

The panel unhesitatingly endorsed the CARI initiative noting that it responds to Canada's international obligation with respect to arctic science. This obligation stems from Canada's stewardship of human and natural resources in the arctic that are of crucial global importance. Indeed, our understanding of the world's north polar region and its relationship to many global environmental processes will depend on the kind of Canadian participation that CARI aims to support.

Of course the panel, as it was asked to do, provided some suggestions to further the good preliminary thinking done so far. In particular we emphasized the importance of long-term monitoring and the role of leading-edge technologies as the fundamental enablers of cutting-edge arctic research. We urged that a thoroughly multidisciplinary perspective be built into CARI from the outset. This also implies partnership with indigenous peoples in Canada's north and with the international polar research community.

Our panel is, without reservation, enthusiastic about the Canadian Arctic Research Initiative and privileged to have been given the opportunity to contribute to its conceptualization at this early stage.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Chair, International Expert Panel on Science Priorities for the Canadian Arctic Research Initiative
November 7, 2008

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