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Researchers prepare for coastal surveys of seabird colonies in Cape Dorset in Canada.

Jennifer Provencher

Fieldwork in the Arctic is surprisingly costly, limiting the research done there

Mark Mallory, who has studied Arctic seabirds for more than 20 years, often notes in his scientific papers how expensive it is to conduct fieldwork in the far north, as have some of his colleagues. But when they recently tallied up their costs systematically, they were shocked to find the true price of northern research was eight times greater than for similar studies of seabirds in southern locations.

The findings, reported on 4 June online in Arctic Science,  are among the first to quantify the high costs of Arctic research. The authors say funding sources are often insufficient to cover these expenses, limiting scientists from collecting enough data to understand how Arctic ecosystems are responding to climate change.

Mallory, a professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Canada, convened seabird researchers who work in the Arctic and in temperate regions. Based on their actual expenses, they estimated costs for a generic scenario in which three researchers establish a field camp for 4 weeks to monitor the breeding success of seabirds, including travel; accommodation; and shipping food, equipment, and supplies for sites in Nunavut and northern Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada; Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago; Greenland; and the Aleutian Islands. The researchers compared these estimates to calculations for southern locales.

Nunavut and Svalbard topped the list. Travel accounted for nearly half the cost of Arctic work. Airfare alone could be $6000 for a single round-trip ticket from Halifax to Resolute Bay, a hamlet in Nunavut. When Mallory and his colleagues factored in the cost of conducting community workshops—two researchers traveling to two northern sites for 5 days, including honoraria and Inuktitut translators—the price tag surged to $71,000, nearly 19 times more than working in the south. And, the authors told Science, these costs appear to be rising faster than inflation.

Isla Myers-Smith, an ecologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not a co-author on the paper, said the budgets aligned with her experience, particularly the high cost of travel. During the summer field season, Myers-Smith travels as far north as Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea for her research on the response of tundra vegetation to climate warming. “If we only work at the sites that are easy to get to, we’re not getting a representative sample of what’s really going on,” she says.

Many countries have additional funds available for north-bound scientists. In Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) offers up to CA$25,000 annually to offset some of the costs, and the Polar Continental Shelf Program, which manages northern logistics, also provides some grants. But not all the researchers who want or need the supplement get it, nor does the extra money “level the playing field,” Mallory says. “I certainly don’t get eight times more funding than someone working in the south.”

Marine ecologist Jennifer Provencher, a postdoctoral fellow in Mallory’s research group, feels that pinch. In the past, many Arctic researchers did “fly in, fly out” science that did not much involve northern communities. Today, scientists spend more time on the ground and are sometimes legally obligated to consult with communities to receive a research permit. Provencher travels during the field season to collect birds, eggs, and other samples, and in the off-season to consult with indigenous hunters, host workshops, and teach students. “These are all things we want to do and feel are necessary, but the funding doesn’t always match,” she says.

In Canada, early career researchers tend to get about 25%  less core funding than established researchers. That may mean they are unable to do Arctic research at all, the authors write.

NSERC spokesperson Valérie Levert-Gagnon acknowledged the high costs of Arctic research. Over the past 5 years, she said, NSERC’s Northern Research Supplement Program funded 73% of applications; supported projects received about 50% of the amounts requested. NSERC will conduct a scheduled review of its grants and supplement programs this year to see how effectively they address the needs of research communities.

Mallory wants funding agencies to understand the true cost of doing Arctic research. “We’re hoping this [study] can be used as a yardstick.”