Analysis and Commentary
IASC Vice President, Doctor of Economics and Professor Vladimir Pavlenko

Vladimir Pavlenko: We should promote Russia’s image as an Arctic country with a vast potential and reserve of knowledge

The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), which deals with research projects in the circumpolar macro-region, is a recognized instrument of international cooperation in the Arctic. IASC Vice President, Doctor of Economics and Professor Vladimir Pavlenko, told about the committee's history, principles of activities and Russia's prospects in it.

How was the IASC established?

The IASC was established 25 years ago.

Mikhail Gorbachev said in Murmansk in 1987 that Russia was ready to cooperate in the Arctic and would no longer be closed to other countries. The Arctic sector of the USSR was practically inaccessible to foreigners, including researchers, and not only in the legal sense but largely due to complicated ice conditions. In 1989, Leningrad hosted the first international Arctic conference that was attended by about 1,000 researchers. It was organized by Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences Igor Gramberg, the director of the Oceanology Research Institute. This was the start of cooperation between scientists of sub-Arctic countries. Our foreign colleagues were very interested in the Russian Arctic because for them it was a blank spot in every sense of the word. 

Eight countries — Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, the United States, Canada and the USSR — held consultations on establishing an international research agency (the IASC) to ensure equal access to Arctic research on the basis of their cooperation. It was interesting for us to borrow the Arctic experience of other countries, primarily the United States, Canada and Norway.

In 1990, the USSR Council of Ministers decided that the Soviet Academy of Sciences would represent the country in the IASC. Academy Members Igor Gramberg and Vladimir Kotlyakov (Doctor of Geography, professor and Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences) signed the constituent documents (the charter, rules and procedures) at the first IASC meeting on behalf of the USSR.

Who represented Russia in the committee?

 Igor Gramberg did. Specialists from the institutes of the Academy of Sciences, Geology Ministry, Energy Ministry and Hydromet (Federal Service for Hydrometeorology) were members of working groups on different fields of knowledge.

How many working groups does the IASC have? Are they formed thematically?

There are six working groups, and the scientific scope of every group is fairly broad and open. For example, the Social and Human Sciences Working Group embraces alien and indigenous populations, their health, peculiarities of adaptation and the life activities of different ethnic groups in the Arctic, the conditions and quality of their labor and life, migration flows, settlement patterns and so on.

How often do working groups meet a year?

Usually twice a year. Each group has its own projects. They meet in different countries, share information, discuss urgent issues and prepare publications. But there are few co-authored articles as every researcher deals with a certain issue in a project. The activities of the working groups are definitely useful. I think the most important point is their striving to use their knowledge to resolve common Arctic problems — reduce the risks of Arctic activities, protect people and the environment.

The IASC was founded by the eight aforementioned sub-Arctic states but now includes 24 countries, some of which do not have Arctic territories. How influential are they in the committee?

The early 2000s witnessed the snowballing growth of the interest of non-Arctic countries in the Arctic, largely due to the prediction of an Arctic summer by the then US Vice President, Al Gore. The media discussed the transport accessibility of the Arctic, broader opportunities for using its energy resources and freedom of navigation.

It is necessary to emphasize that the IASC was founded as a regional organization that primarily works in the interests of its founders — the eight sub-Arctic states — and this idea is sealed in its charter. However, the interest of non-regional countries was so great that in 2008 I had to use my right of veto at the meeting in Bergen, Norway, to block proposals on making a cardinal change in the committee structure and bureaucratize its governance system. I did this also because the founding members could lose their influence on prioritizing the committee's activities. Having received a draft document with a new structure I expressed my categorical objections in writing and left. Literally on the same day, I received a call from Anton Vasilyev (Russia's envoy in the IASC) and said that he was called by his colleagues from Sweden and the Canadian Embassy… We agreed to meet on the following day. I told him everything, and handed over copies of documents and of my letter to the IASC. Having listened to me, he said I did the right thing.

I knew I was right because they suggested supplementing the working groups with separately-funded standing research committees. The proposals suggested not only structural but also institutional changes and a different financing procedure. In effect, the founders were losing control over the use of funds. In the 2000s, Russia just started rising. The Russian Academy of Sciences paid contributions to the IASC in installments. These were difficult times. The proposed new structure would have made it very hard for Russia to uphold its priorities in Arctic research. Under the circumstances, I had to take this only correct step.

And you made it?

Russia is the largest Arctic country. Over 85 percent of Arctic research expeditions take place within the Russian jurisdiction. My sensible colleagues understood that Russia may simply lose interest in research conducted in its Arctic zone by other countries.

How often does the IASC Council meet?

It meets once a year. The Executive Committee consists of the president, four vice presidents, and the executive secretary and meets twice a year. We discuss intermediate results and plan what issues to submit for discussion by the council.

What does Russia receive from its participation in the IASC?

This is no secret and we must be open about this. We are lagging behind in terms of technology and equipment related to Arctic research. This is a huge gap and it was particularly obvious in late 1990s and 2000s. This was simply a failure. Everything was going down the drain at that time; research stations were being shut down and experts were leaving.

So, participation in the IASC is giving us scientific support?

Our country is the unquestionable leader in the methodology of Arctic research and fundamental understanding of deep-going processes and phenomena in the Arctic. Sets of observations over the condition of the Arctic environment and climate are of exceptional importance in this context. They cover the entire period of Arctic exploration and economic development as of the 15th century. Economic, defense, geopolitical and scientific interests have always been closely intertwined in the Arctic.

However, we are behind in the technology of Arctic research and related equipment. For us, participation in IASC projects is a good opportunity to use new research technology and instruments, receive new experience and knowledge and apply it on a broader scale to develop our science on a new technological foundation.

So, in principle you are doing this in the IASC?

Of course, I am trying to do everything to enable our researchers and experts to actively join their colleagues from sub-Arctic and non-Arctic countries in their research and work on their equipment. Naturally, they also come to us and in large numbers.

Do our specialists travel on IASC missions?

Certainly — the IASC working groups are very active.

What are Russia's prospects in the IASC?

This year, we will considerably increase the number of Russian experts in IASC working groups. We are more actively involving young researchers from various regions. We are concentrating not just on increasing the number of our experts in IASC working groups but also on upgrading the quality of their work and contribution to Russian science. In cooperation with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and related ministries and departments, we are selecting highly qualified experts. We want to have two Russian specialists in every working group. The selection is based on three criteria: high professionalism recognized by foreign experts, a command of English, and work experience in the Arctic.

We should promote Russia's image as an Arctic country with a vast potential and reserve of knowledge and we can only do this through our experts who will be fittingly representing Russia in all IASC structures.