Science in Times of Crisis Episode 3 – The Fallout of Conflict: The Arctic and Outer Space

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis released its third episode with expert guests Melody Burkins and Piero Benvenuti.

ISC Presents: Science in Times of Crisis is a 5 part podcast series exploring what living in a world of crisis and geopolitical instability means for science and scientists around the world.

In Episode 3 we were joined by Melody Burkins, Director of the Institute of Arctic Studies, Dartmouth College and Member of the Standing Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science and Piero Benvenuti, former General Secretary of the world’s largest astronomical organization: the International Astronomical Union.

In this podcast episode we unpack the worrying impact that conflict has on the capacity of organized science and scientists to respond to global challenges. Some of the critical spaces in which the most pressing issues of our modern era are being researched and studied are currently being disrupted due to conflict and crisis. In this episode we discuss two of them, the Arctic and outer space. 

With countries struggling to balance the moral dilemma of condemning aggression or continuing essential research, we ask, is more scientific collaboration needed, or even possible?


Holly Sommers: We exist at a time in which war, civil strife, disasters and climate change impact almost every corner of the globe and crisis is, in many ways, an inevitability. Paired with this are the sensitive geopolitics that shape the way in which policymakers and governments prepare for and react to those crises.

I’m Holly Sommers and in this 5-part podcast series from the International Science Council we will explore the implications for science and scientists of a world characterized by crises and geopolitical instability. 

This podcast episode will unpack the worrying impact that conflict has on the capacity of organized science and scientists to respond to global challenges. Some of the critical spaces in which the most pressing issues of our modern era are being researched and studied are currently being disrupted due to conflict and crisis. In this episode we’ll be discussing two of them, the Arctic and outer space. 

With countries struggling to balance the moral dilemma of condemning aggression or continuing essential research, we ask, is more scientific collaboration needed, or even possible?

Our first guest today is Dr Melody Burkins. Melody is Director of the Institute of Arctic Studies, at Dartmouth University. She also serves as Special Advisor and Assembly Member of the University of the Arctic global network and Chair of the U.S. National Academies’ Board on International Scientific Organizations. With a career spanning academia and government, Melody is recognized as a “science diplomat”, advocating for policy-engaged scholarship, science diplomacy education, and the engagement of more diverse knowledge systems for the Arctic. She is also a member of the ISC governing board, as well as the Committee for Freedom and Responsibility in Science. 

As the director for the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth, what do you believe is the role of the Arctic in relation to so many of the critical challenges that humanity faces today?

Melody Burkins: It’s really where the Arctic voice is that we can hear there, you know, unlike working in Antarctica, there are no people in Antarctica, when we study climate change and biodiversity there are people in scientific camps and stations. But in the Arctic, we have people who have lived in the Arctic, and worked in Arctic environments, and created lives and histories there for thousands of years. And that’s the difference of the Arctic, there are people there with whom we must develop relationships and have respect for the knowledge that is there. So the role of the Arctic, I think, is really in learning to do research in a way that actually is more thoughtful of the people who have the knowledge in the Arctic systems. The second big part is facing issues of climate change, food security, energy transitions, mineral resource issues. They’re at the front lines, they’re doing this today, it’s not coming. We’re not thinking of what will happen to coastlines in ten years. This is happening. The sea ice is melting, their coastlines are eroding, permafrost is thawing, herds of animals are changing their pathways. This is happening now to the people in the Arctic, the indigenous peoples who have made their lives for thousands of years, they have been resilient. When we talk about resilience in the Arctic, there’s often right, well, we’ve been resilient now let’s actually prosper and move forward. And how we do that is not coming in with solutions that we’ve put together at Dartmouth or anywhere else, unless they are informed and in partnership with those Arctic peoples. And that is, I think, something that the role of the Arctic is, to teach us how to be better scientists, be better knowledge holders, working with people who live and work and sustain and have families and cultures in the space that is a most beautiful and precious Arctic.

Holly Sommers: The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental Forum, which promotes cooperation in the Arctic. Could you tell us a little bit more about the role of the council and who its member states are?

Melody Burkins: So the Arctic Council was developed back in the mid 90’s, and it is the primary intergovernmental forum for Arctic issues of sustainable development, and environmental protection and conservation. It specifically was an organization created to represent all of those regions above the Arctic Circle. And there’s eight Arctic nations: The United States is there because of Alaska, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark, which is Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and then of course, the Russian Federation. And then the six Arctic, indigenous peoples and that includes the Athabaskans, the Aleut, the Gwich’in, the Inuit, the Saami, and the Russian Arctic indigenous peoples of the North. So all of those peoples are at the table at the Arctic Council, and how the Arctic Council works is not by a majority vote, it has always worked by consensus. And they have working groups on all of these issues from protection of the marine environment and shipping, thinking about Arctic shipping and safety, to the sustainable development of Arctic communities, their health, their economies, and to issues of conservation of Arctic flora and fauna. These working groups bring in experts, they have discussions about projects that the Arctic Council moves forward, and every once in a while the Arctic Council will actually move through more of an agreement that must be ratified, for example, by the nations. But all of those things have to be done in consensus. And they are focused, as I said, on sustainable development and environmental protection.

Holly Sommers: Russia was the chair of the Arctic Council from 2021 until 2023. But in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the parties of the Arctic Council released a statement on March 3, in which they stated they wouldn’t travel to Russia for the meetings of the Arctic Council, nor would they participate in any council meetings. This effectively halted the operations of the Arctic Council. And then in May this year, there was a limited reengagement. Could you just tell us a little bit   more about the series of events? Is this pausing of cooperation, given that the Arctic Council has largely operated outside of geopolitics and issues of security, is this really unprecedented within the Arctic Council?

Melody Burkins: Yes, it is. All of us who work in the Arctic, our Russian partners and collaborators have been incredibly sad about this. At the same time, there is an understanding that there was an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country that needed to be addressed and countered. And so though the Arctic Council does stay away from these issues of geopolitics, the egregiousness of the late February, early March invasion was enough for the seven other nations of the Arctic Council to say that they needed to have a pause. But the Arctic Council, all of the working groups suspended their work. I understand there are conversations with Russian partners and colleagues still, but most of the scientific research, some of it can continue if it’s already funded, but in the United States, for example, if it was previously funded, it could continue and though there was some discussion of whether that would be safe for the partners, especially partners in Russia, but there are no new projects being funded at the moment in the United States. Other countries have chosen perhaps to not continue ongoing partnerships. We’re all trying to respect each country’s, each governments, each organization’s decisions on how to move forward. There are, as I said, some limited places for cooperation that continue. But for right now, most folks are looking to the changing of the chairmanship, which will happen in May of 2023 to the Norwegians, and what the next steps for the Arctic Council might be.

Holly Sommers: Actually leading on from that, as you just said, the next chair of the Arctic Council is due to move to Norway in May 2023. But we’ve heard in the last few weeks that China, for example, will refuse to support a Norwegian chair if Russia isn’t able to participate in the workings of the council. How will the council likely move forward with this? Can they continue without Russian involvement? Or given that Russian territory in the Arctic is, I think, almost 50% of its landmass, is Russia simply too important to leave out of these discussions?

Melody Burkins: This is such a good question. And it’s so challenging. We heard from I think it was the Chinese ambassador to Iceland at the Arctic Circle assembly, if I remember correctly, there were some conversations about China suggesting it would not necessarily recognize the Arctic Council if Russia kept paused from the council, and we do like to use that word because it is a hope for a future that we are all back together. But China is an observer to the Arctic Council, it is not a member, what is needed for consensus to move forward. Many observers would be sad to lose their input, their engagement. But it is understandable that the Arctic Council is the eight Arctic nations and the Arctic indigenous peoples. And so as an observer, it would be unfortunate, but that is not really going to change how the Arctic Council moves forward. That said, the Russian Arctic is incredibly valuable to the future of the Arctic, there’s no doubt about that. So much climate science has been done in partnership with both the Russian indigenous peoples, the Russian scholars, our Russian collaborators, and that continues to be on pause. And yes, it is not good for research. It is not good for climate science. They are incredibly valuable. At the same time, there are decisions right now about the future of sovereignty, human rights and democracy and how we work with one another that are also just as important. They’re what the Arctic Council was founded on, trusted partnerships and conversations and a recognition of boundaries and borders. And so when that has been crossed, the Arctic Council right now is saying that’s just too much for it to manage. And it needs to have many conversations to see how Russia could or would be back as part of the team.

Holly Sommers: And Melody, you mentioned there’s a lot of research that has been disrupted by the current conflict, and I just wondered if you could get into more detail about what that research actually is; is it to do with permafrost? Is it data that we’re losing? What actually is that?

Melody Burkins: Yeah, it’s all of the above. We just had a speaker last week, Jeff Kirby of Aarhus University, who had a long-term partnership working with the Russian collaborators and the indigenous Ninets. And they were looking at permafrost, they were looking at ecosystem change, landscape change, they had systems set out on the landscape to look at reindeer behaviors, they would go back every few months to check on them in the past. And for two years now, they cannot work with their collaborators, they’re actually concerned about their safety too, part of why they have to be careful, and they haven’t been able to check their systems. So those understandings of permafrost change, of wildfires of landscape change and reindeer herds, which is, you know, critical to the sustenance and the future of the Ninet people, that partnership right now is on pause, and it’s incredibly challenging for all involved. Another colleague, I learned, was working on linguistics I believe in northeastern Russia, and she has had to pivot her research to now work in Greenland, again, mostly for access issues, safety issues, and both for her, but also her partners and concern about their safety if they collaborate on these issues, no one’s quite sure what that could what could happen.

Holly Sommers: Is there anything that policymakers or these larger scientific organizations who have a stronger voice, is there anything they can do? Are there any mechanisms we can put in place to ensure that geopolitics doesn’t affect such time critical scientific research such as that of the Arctic and its ecosystem?

Melody Burkins: Well, the good news is that there actually are several already, we have to implement them. And isn’t that always the case, whether it’s the Paris Climate Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, again, they’re not necessarily the protocols, there are guidelines. There actually was created an Arctic investment protocol that has several folks who’ve signed on to it. It’s actually the Arctic Economic Council, which is a sort of a cousin to the Arctic Council and thinks about economic issues, and has indigenous leadership, holds on to the Arctic investment protocol. I think it was created maybe in 2016/17, I’m sure it could be improved upon, but it does talk about all of these values that we’ve been discussing, of thinking long term, about working closely and taking leadership, and decision making must be in partnership or led by indigenous communities. So those are created, how do we implement them? How do we actually implement these articles, these protocols, these agreements, the Fairbanks, science agreement of how we should incorporate more indigenous knowledge and work with communities. How do we do that? I was very excited to see the national Arctic strategy, the United States Arctic strategy just came out, and security is first as it should be. In that, and then even the next three, were all about working with Alaskan Native communities, working with indigenous communities around the Arctic, how do we co produce, co manage, co develop solutions? So it is happening, there are pieces in place, and now we have to follow them.

Holly Sommers: After hearing about the impact of current conflict and geopolitical tensions on the Arctic, we turn now to explore the complicated role that outer space is playing in current and future conflicts, as well as the impact of collaborative breakdowns on crucial outer space projects.

Our second guest is Piero Benvenuti, former professor in the Physics and Astronomy department of the University of Padua and former General Secretary of the world’s largest astronomical organization: the International Astronomical Union (or IAU).

I wanted to start by asking you when or how your own passion for outer space and astronomy began and why is it a field that interests you so much?

Piero Benvenuti: My passion for outer space and astronomy began when I was a boy. I was fascinated by the sight of the starry sky, by the bright planets that look so different from the stars and slowly changed their positions among them, by the moon and its phases. I remember I was spending part of the summer in a small village in the Dolomites and at the time the sky was still uncontaminated by urban light pollution, therefore the stars were there almost to be touched, and those nights were very influential in deciding which university studies to follow and later about my professional career as an astronomer. At that time, we were in the mid 70s, a new window on the cosmos was being opened. And I remember in my early days as an astronomer following a passionate seminar by Riccardo Giacconi, who later became a Nobel Laureate in physics in 2002. So at that point, I decided that space astronomy was to be my main professional interest. And indeed, after a few years working as a ground astronomer, I joined the European Space Agency. And these years have shown to us that accessing outer space allows us to make a fantastic advance in our knowledge of the cosmos. So I’m so happy with my early decision that brought me to the forefront of astronomy and cosmology.

Holly Sommers: Piero, in your role as the former General Secretary of the International Astronomical Union, what do you believe is the role of outer space and of astronomy in relation to the many critical challenges that humanity is facing today?

Piero Benvenuti: Well, the International Astronomical Union union that was founded in 1919, has this mission to foster and expand astronomical science by international collaboration. So in the very mission, it speaks about collaborating across the world, independently of any barrier, of any frontier, or any difference in culture. And that is because astronomy is universal. The sky is the same to all of us, wherever we live. And so it has a very strong unifying power that the International Astronomical Union is still promoting. We all, as a scientist, we have the same faith tenet, we believe that any phenomenon, particularly any phenomenon that we see in the sky, can be interpreted rationally, and can be included in our model of reality. And that is a tenet of faith that is shared by all the scientists and for that reason it has such a powerful unifying power. And so we want to  follow that, in spite of all the difficulties that we encounter in daily life and in the geopolitical situation that are changing and sometimes opposing this great fraternity that we have with all the scientists in the world.

Holly Sommers: I was just about to ask you about that. Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been many scientific projects and collaborations which have either been deeply affected or halted altogether. Do you think you could give us some examples of outer space and astronomical projects which have been affected by the current conflict? 

Piero Benvenuti: Well, indeed, the example that comes to my mind immediately is the ExoMars mission of the European Space Agency, it is a system that can drill below the surface of Mars, to the depth of two meters. And that would be a great progress in understanding the history of this planet. But unfortunately, this project was also in collaboration with the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, who was providing the launcher for the spacecraft. And at this point, that collaboration is stopped suddenly, and so the future of this mission is really in danger now.  I know the European Space Agency is trying to find an alternative solution, but in this case it’s very hard because you cannot choose freely the time of launching a satellite or spacecraft to go to a planet. And so, everything is very critical, and the danger is that we may lose years and years of work and resources. But this is a clear example where suddenly a change in the geopolitical scenario can affect, particularly projects where there is a collaboration about facilities. We hope to continue the collaboration research, but when you are collaborating on a specific project, that really becomes a real problem.

Holly Sommers: And how will this breakdown of collaboration tangibly affect research in outer space in the long and short term, how impactful is it? 

Piero Benvenuti: I think, indeed, that there might be a long  term impact of these, because in spite of our natural willingness to collaborate, and to continue the research jointly with a group of any country. So we hope that the situation can be solved, but we also have to consider that in some cases, like the case now in Ukraine, that when all the infrastructure are destroyed, because of war, then scientists cannot really work, cannot proceed and so we are really pitiful, for our colleagues that are facing such a very deep problem. And maybe the new evolution of Internet communication from the sky, from outer space may help. As we know, this has already had some effect on the Ukraine situation because people can connect to the internet independently of the destruction of infrastructure on the ground, because the signal is coming directly from satellites.

Holly Sommers: And we’re talking about Starlink I imagine here?  The satellite internet constellation, and the almost sort of nation state role of private companies such as SpaceX in outer space,  as you mentioned, has been very evident in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as that has unfolded. Do you think you could tell us a little bit more about the geopolitical implications of these kinds of satellites, you’ve also yourself attended the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS). And you’ve seen these kinds of discussions up close, I wonder what sort of debates are being had there around these issues? And what are the implications of these satellites?

Piero Benvenuti: Yes, this is a completely new situation where we are confronted with a real dilemma, because on one side, this Starlink constellation will be providing a very useful service to society, because you could connect to the internet from everywhere in the world, with a simple antenna. But on the other end, we realize that the large number of satellites we are talking in a few years, something like 70,000, or even 100,000 satellites orbiting in low Earth orbit. These satellites, for a good fraction of the night, are still illuminated by the sun, and so they become visible in the sky during the night. Some of them will be visible even by the naked eye, but all of them will be visible, or detectable, by the very sensitive telescopes that we use professionally. And so there is a negative impact of this constellation that is now being faced, and we are discussing that at the level of the UN committee for the peaceful use of outer space. There are many aspects of this that have to be considered, but one is the direct impact of the constellation on astronomy. And we are discussing directly with companies how to mitigate this effect. Some results have been obtained, but we are far from reaching a solution to this. And in the discussions at the COPOUS committee in Vienna, the discussion has recently been distorted by the geopolitical situation. All the delegations, apart from Russia, were complaining about the invasion of Ukraine and immediately the Russian delegate replied saying that that was not an argument to be discussed in that committee. But, you know, even if that is a peaceful committee for the peaceful use of outer space, the geopolitical situation is affecting also the peaceful use. And so it’s a very delicate situation that we are facing. Because in one hand, we want to find a peaceful solution to this problem but the discussion is distorted by interests, which are not at all peaceful, unfortunately.

Holly Sommers: And I just wondered, what is the role of the International Astronomical Union as an international scientific organization regarding advice, policy development, such that we’re talking about now around the use of satellites and these issues?

Piero Benvenuti: Fortunately, we have been admitted as a permanent observer, as a union, in the committee for the peaceful use of outer space. We are using this presence in the UN committee to raise the attention of the delegation, and we had obtained some success there. In the last meeting of the scientific and technical subcommittee of COPUOS, a quarter of the delegation intervened in favor of recognizing that this constellation represents a problem for science in general. And we achieved an important goal, which was to have the delegation recognize that astronomy is instrumental to all space activities, in fact, we need astronomical observation to carry on with space exploration. And so, this recognition means that the committee has to be worried about the protection of astronomy. Astronomy by now is not just one of the other scientific activities, it is providing us, the cosmos is providing us with a laboratory where we can experiment with physical situations that we can never reproduce on Earth. So it is a unique possibility to advance in the scientific knowledge of reality. And we have to be very careful therefore, in protecting the access to this data.

Holly Sommers: At the end of our discussions, I asked both our guests if they had a message of hope for the role of both the Arctic and outer space in the future. 

Melody Burkins: I’ve worked in science, I’ve worked in government, I’ve worked in administration, and I’m not naive, I am a realist, but I’m also hopeful. I do see the social pressures on us that we should do better as humans. There are more avenues for voices from the Arctic, now we have social media, the pros and the cons of social media, but voices of the leaders of the Arctic can be amplified in a way they never could before. All of my students, they hear this, they learn about the peoples of the Arctic, they learn about the pressures on the Arctic, and they want to be part of a more sustainable solution. There is agency that my students feel they have in being part of doing it better doing it being partners being listening to Arctic knowledge holders, that’s a change. Again, I hear CEOs, I hear executives talking about knowledge sharing with Arctic peoples, these are terms and phrases, that I have to be hopeful are real, that they’re actually going to be implemented and that people do see how we got into this place. One of the things I often talk about is we can’t expect to have a more sustainable, inclusive and equitable future to the Arctic, if we don’t actually ensure that we have sustainable, equitable and inclusive decision making and the knowledge that goes in there. So we have to do this to have that more sustainable and ethical and equitable future of the Arctic. I think we have the tools to do it. And I’m hopeful that our next generation and some of our leaders in powerful spaces are saying the same.

Piero Benvenuti: I mean, we are part of a big evolution that started 14 billion years ago, and now it has made the conscience emerging on this ground. And so this makes us very responsible for the entire universe, we are the conscience of the universe. And I think that message coming from cosmology will be disseminated everywhere to the entire society, and they become more responsible for protecting the environment, but also to respect everybody, every human being, because we are all under the same sky, actually we are all products of the same universe. And maybe this is the you know, kind of philosophical thought that scientists can transmit to the entire society, try to make that more reasonable and more peaceful, with the same aim for the progress of the entire humanity.

Holly Sommers: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Science in Times of Crisis, for our next episode we’ll be having a conversation with Dr Alaa Hamdon, director of the Remote Sensing Centre at University of Mosul. In 2014, when ISIS took over the city of Mosul, Dr Alaa managed to flee, leaving his whole life behind him. We’ll discuss with him his experience as a displaced scientist, his return to a destroyed Mosul, and the importance of the Mosul University library, which he was instrumental in re-building.

 — The opinions, conclusions and recommendations in this podcast are those of the guests themselves and not necessarily those of the International Science Council —

Find out more about the ISC’s work on freedom and responsibility in science

Freedoms and Responsibilities in Science

The right to share in and to benefit from advances in science and technology is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as is the right to engage in scientific enquiry, to pursue and communicate knowledge, and to associate freely in such activities.

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