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Big year ahead for arctic research

In just over one year, the official observation period for the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007–2008 will start. IPY 2007 – 2008 will be an intensive campaign of internationally coordinated, multidisciplinary scientific research and observation that will target the Earth’s polar regions. Melissa Mooza reports.
With its short timeframe – observations will take place in a pulse of concentrated activity from March 1, 2007 to March 1, 2009 – the upcoming IPY will capture information about environmental and social change taking place in the polar regions. It will also address long-term practical needs through the creation of facilities to support polar research in the future.No less important will be the initiative’s role in attracting and developing a new generation of polar researchers.

By pooling the intellectual and material resources of nations worldwide, the initiative aims to address polar research challenges, the resolution of which is beyond the capacities of individual nations; it is, in the words of Chris Elfring, the point of contact for the US IPY National Committee, “a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.” And how are the parts adding up so far? Earlier this year, the IPY Joint Committee, which oversees IPY planning and coordination on the international level, announced a call for Expressions of Intent (EoI) proposing activities during the IPY. The submission of close to 900 proposals exceeded expectations and served as an indication of the enthusiasm for IPY within the polar community. A total of 36 countries contributed to the proposals that were submitted, including Egypt and Greece, countries without polar research traditions, and Malaysia, which is only just beginning polar research. Among contributing nations, the United States and Canada stood out with the greatest number of EoIs led by or involving their scientists – close to 400, and more than 200 proposals, respectively.Researchers from the United Kingdom and Norway were involved in around 120 to 150 EoIs, while Russia, Germany, and Denmark also contributed to a substantial number of proposals.

The Joint Committee evaluated the submitted Expressions of Intent for compliance with criteria drawn from IPY objectives and characteristics and, as appropriate, issued recommendations for improvement. Project proposers will incorporate this input into the development of fuller proposals, to be submitted by June 30, 2005. The Joint Committee will then review the full proposals, and will make decisions about which activities will become part of the official IPY 2007–2008 programme. Once these identifications are made, Project Steering Committees will assume responsibility for project implementation, including securing funding for their activities.

Already, a number of countries have committed funds to support IPY activities. China currently leads all nations with $64 million confirmed for polar infrastructure that will contribute to the IPY. The United Kingdom has contributed close to £1million for the IPY Programme Office and another £5.5 million for UK environmental scientists to work in the Arctic during the IPY. Other nations have pledged support to restore polar facilities; Belgium, for instance, plans to re-open a base in Antarctica that was active during the period 1930–66, while Russia intends to re-establish some historical observing systems and drifting stations.

Many countries, though, are still considering their contributions, including the United States and Canada. Planning by US federal agencies is still evolving. For the most part, they will initiate funding for research to be conducted during the IPY in fiscal year 2006, although several funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, have already specifically mentioned IPY as a part of their regular call for proposals. Meanwhile, the Canadian IPY community continues efforts to identify funding opportunities for its program, after having learned this past February that dedicated resources for IPY were not allocated in Canada’s federal budget for 2005. Although this is a major concern for leadership of the Canadian IPY program, there is hope that Canadian IPY activities will gain indirectly from funds allocated to other programs and initiatives. Such indirect support may come through the Northern Strategy and the National Satellite Initiative, as well as through money earmarked for the improvement of northern infrastructure in the three territories.

The former interim director of the IPY International Program Office, J. Cynan Ellis-Evans, did, however, caution against measuring nations’ contributions to IPY 2007–2008 in financial terms at this point.He noted that countries have different and particular approaches to science and its funding, and are consequently proceeding at their own pace.According to Ellis-Evans, financial contribution will really become more pertinent later in the year. As 2006 nears, then, it will be clearer which countries have distinguished themselves in their commitments to IPY. In the upcoming months, eyes will certainly be on the United States and Canada – both polar nations and nations with established histories of polar research – to demonstrate leadership and commitment.