Arctic expertise: training the vanguard

By Sari Väyrynen / Translation: Richard Foley

There are two ways to handle development in the Arctic: good and bad. Only the first is an option at the Arktis Graduate School.

Call for six full-time research student positions: Application deadline 6 November 2009

After working for over a decade in the international cooperation of the Arctic Council and the Barents Council, Paula Kankaanpää, Director of the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre, was confident of the road ahead: the Arctic had to learn from old mistakes made elsewhere and steer development in keeping with the times – in other words, sustainably. As she said six years ago, this meant that we have to have people making decisions, running governments and managing businesses who understand the impact that global environmental and social changes have on the Arctic.

Senior Scientist Päivi Soppela of the Arctic Centre came to the very same conclusion after five years as the coordinator of the Circumpolar PhD Network in Arctic Environmental Studies (CAES):

“Interest in the network was enormous. Young researchers sought each other out across disciplinary boundaries and had a passionate desire to understand the changes occurring in the environment and communities in the Arctic and to further sustainable development. For many, the impetus was that they lived and had their roots in the region.” 

Soppela recalls that the international programme revealed a distinct need to train Arctic experts in Finland. She and Paula pooled their expertise to address this need, creating the national, multidisciplinary Arktis Graduate School. The Arktis programme provides a broad-based knowledge of Arctic affairs and offers a forum for studying the impact of modern development and global change on society and the environment in the Arctic. In 2003, the Ministry of Education granted funding for five graduate students. The programme received additional funding in 2007 to continue these positions and to set up three more at the beginning of next year.

Bridging disparate worlds

Arktis, supported by the Ministry of Education and the Academy of Finland and coordinated by the Arctic Centre, now has twenty Finnish and international researchers in training from the universities of Lapland, Oulu, Helsinki and Joensuu. Most of them work in the Arctic Centre, where they can tap an extensive network of academic supervisors from universities and research institutes throughout the Arctic. The students represent a range of disciplines spanning sociology, law, political science, biology and geography. Half of the students will defend their theses in one of the faculties at the University of Lapland.

“Next year will see the introduction of a new theme at Arktis”, notes Soppela. “The focus will be natural resources and environmental economics and related policies as forces promoting sustainable social development in the Barents Euro-Arctic Region.”

Both Soppela and Kankaanpää are still every bit as convinced of the need for experts as they were when developing the Graduate School.

As Paula Kankaanpää points out: “In the near future, we will see billions of euros invested in the Barents region alone in the mining and energy industries and in tourism and infrastructure. Then again, the Arctic has many pristine areas and indigenous and other local communities whose livelihood and cultures are at odds with the interests that drive the global economy. These different worlds must all be accommodated in development. Education is a sound tool to this end: it can increase knowledge and understanding of Arctic areas.” She adds that it is not the task of the Graduate School to oppose development. “Rather, it is our position that development should take all the important perspectives into account.”

And, as Arktis Coordinator Soppela observes: “If we are to reconcile points of view, we need new approaches, ones in which different disciplines meet.”  Illustrating her point, she goes on to note:

“In the Arktis Graduate School students are trained to engage in multidisciplinary work, for example, in joint seminars and, most commonly, to interact with the surrounding society. Students might present their research to the general public at the public lectures organised annually by the Graduate School. The Graduate School also makes travel grants available to support students’ international mobility.”

To date, five Arktis students have completed their doctorates at the universities of Lapland, Oulu and Helsinki. Ten more doctoral candidates are scheduled to defend their theses in the next few years.

“In organising Arktis, we systematically tried to attract researchers who were just getting started with their theses rather than people who were finishing up their work. This is why it is only now that degrees are being completed in any number. We have other results to boast of though: several of the researchers have had babies while working on their theses,” Kankaanpää and Soppela note with a chuckle.

Sustainable development – a very Lappish resource

Paula Kankaanpää smiles in being able to report that the decision-makers in the provincial government in Lapland value sustainable development and the importance of pristine nature.

“We have tried to improve the visibility of and appreciation for research. For instance, the Regional Council of Lapland has emphasised sustainable development in preparing a new strategy for Lapland. Ask anyone why they live in Lapland and they will say ’nature and the environment’. These offer something that people cannot get elsewhere. If nature and the environment disappear, the people of Lapland, and their livelihood, will vanish as well.”

Kankaanpää stresses: “A focus on nature and the environment reflects more than ideology; it is a commercial opportunity. Community planning that takes into account the beauty and tranquillity of nature will give Lapland outstanding opportunities to attract new residents, tourists and a variety of businesses. And we will have no problem finding capable people ready to work for these companies”.

Policy researcher delves into opportunities of indigenous people to have a say

“With my particular topic, I have to look for the knowledge and research contacts I need internationally. Through Arktis I have had access not only to a network of peers but to travel grants. For example, support from the Graduate School made it possible for me to visit New York this year”, says researcher Marjo Lindroth.

Lindroth is writing her thesis in international relations at the Arctic Centre as an Arktis student. She is also coordinating the Centre’s multidisciplinary English-language Arctic Studies Program (ASP) and BANG, the Barents Arctic Network of Graduate Schools. Set up the year before last in response to an Arktis initiative, BANG serves as a forum for graduate students and senior researchers in the Barents Region.

Lindroth anticipates finishing her thesis on indigenous peoples as international actors in one and a half years.

“I am concentrating on the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as an arena of influence for indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples already have a measure of power morally and in international law, but the situation is paradoxical in that intergovernmental organisations, such as the UN, ultimately work on states’ terms”.

Studies at every level

The Arktis Graduate School and the Arctic Studies Program (ASP) are the cornerstones of the Arctic Centre’s educational mission. Offered in cooperation with the University’s International Studies Centre, the ASP provides a basic knowledge of the conditions in the Arctic region, current environmental issues and sustainable development. The courses are taught by researchers at the Arctic Centre and complemented by excursions to the Kola Peninsula and northern Lapland. The Arctic Studies Program has proven very popular with exchange students. Degree students at the University have an opportunity to complete a minor in Arctic Studies.

The Arctic Centre also organises lectures for the general public that deal with Arctic issues, as well as a variety of workshops for schoolchildren. Another facet of the Centre’s activities is its research department, which has doctoral candidates working in a range of disciplines with outside funding. These students draw on the Centre’s professors and senior scientists as thesis supervisors.