Working across (disciplinary) borders in the High North

By Ingrid Medby

Coming from a Geography Department, I felt like I had some experience of interdisciplinary cooperation (or at least co-existence) across the social/natural science divide. However, participating in the “Young Scientist Forum” (YSF) in the Norwegian High North showed me just how fruitful such cooperation can be.

The majestic landscape in Lofoten and the famous "Svolværgeita" mountain-formation in Svolvær
The majestic landscape in Lofoten and the famous “Svolværgeita” mountain-formation in Svolvær

The YSF is an annual, travelling workshop over ten days, aimed at PhD students working on Arctic issues, broadly defined, in order to facilitate cooperation and innovative approaches to border-crossing topics. It is organised in connection to the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø in Northern Norway, where policy-makers, academics, and business-people (attempt to) speak together about a region which truly necessitates the collaboration of all actors and stakeholders.

More specifically, the YSF brought together 24 postgraduate researchers for the conference and ensuing five days in the beautiful Lofoten archipelago in Northern Norway. Here we attended seminars and lectures, and – most importantly – worked together on a hypothetical research grant proposal in which our shared knowledge and expertise would be drawn upon.

Apart from all having either a poster or an oral presentation at the Arctic Frontiers conference, we turned out to be a highly diverse group. This was the first year there was a majority of social scientists, but research foci ranged widely – from economics, geopolitics, psychology, anthropology, marine biology, architecture, and engineering, to mention some. The nationalities were equally diverse, coming from as far afield as South Africa, Argentina, and Martinique; and at least five Russian participants, despite current visa difficulties and political headaches.

It soon became apparent that, in my case, that my knowledge of Human Geography would not be the only personal resource I would have to draw upon. The first challenge came in the social format: how to survive ten days in a double room, or indeed triple cabin on-board, with someone you have never met before. Some academic stiffness was broken down when we, for example, drew each other – the awkwardness of staring into someone else’s eyes for an extended period of time while they draw every pimple and imperfection is a surprisingly effective way of breaking the ice…

An eclectic mix of lectures meant that we learnt about delivering a PhD-thesis by parachute jumping (by the brilliant artist Scott Thoe), how to follow your intuition and interest, “because it feels right” (by the highly talented loop-table musicians Karol Green and Santi Careta), cod biology in the Lofoten region, climatic changes in Norway’s North, global interests in the Arctic, marine organisms’ nocturnal lives, and – of course – the process of developing a research grant proposal.

We were given a fairly specific Call for Proposals to work towards; tasked with contributing to the “Reduction of the environmental impact and level of risk related to petroleum activities on the Norwegian continental shelf”. In other words, the scope of focus beyond petroleum-related research was limited. Admittedly, it was not a topic I felt entirely comfortable myself; however, it will come as no surprise to those who know my research, I managed to bring in the identity variable, and we decided to focus on a less controversial space of extraction than Lofoten itself.

Ingrid presenting at the conference
Ingrid presenting at the conference

In the end, our project was named “FISHER: Fostering Identity through Safeguarding Home, Environment, and Resources” (of course, finding a catchy acronym was part of the assessment criteria…). It would, very briefly, assess how local communities’ active involvement in oil spill-preparedness could help maintain local identity and culture, while also contributing to a more robust and rapid system through using environmentally friendly methods. Ambitious? Somewhat. Controversial? Certainly. But it was also a project that did speak to my own interests, not least after recently reading a Human Geography-take on the petroleum-fishery conflict in Lofoten, using – you guessed it – identity as an often overseen variable (Kristoffersen and Dale, 2014). Additionally, it included the expertise of the other group members, who represented Marine Biology, Economics, Psychology, and Political Science.

After our presentation was done, and the boat-ride back to Tromsø was over, the post-workshop silence was noticeable (and surprisingly unwelcome). No roomies, no constant socialising, no frustrating group work, and no one to teach me about things I never even knew I wondered about. Who would I now talk to about zooplankton, bowhead whale-tagging, or economic models of climate change?

I did, of course, learn a lot about research grant proposals. The process of including every detail (thanks Ilya, our economist, from sparing me an agonising attempt at making a budget in Excel), pitching it to fit the call, building a strong team, etc. However, I dare say the experience of working with researchers from completely different academic fields than myself was of most importance. Being at first faced with the limits of my own knowledge, and then with the incredible possibilities that open up once you work together people with highly different knowledge was an encouraging lesson.

The question of petroleum extraction is highly controversial, particularly in the beautiful Lofoten region. Here, a comma changes the original "F*** taking the oil" to "F***, take the oil", highlighting the diverse opinions on the matter.
The question of petroleum extraction is highly controversial, particularly in the beautiful Lofoten region. Here, a comma changes the original “F*** taking the oil” to “F***, take the oil”, highlighting the diverse opinions on the matter.

In a time when geopolitical relations in the High North seem to be re-cooling, the kind of interdisciplinary and international cooperation among students that the YSF foster is invaluable. We may not be world leaders (at least, not yet), but as young researchers our job is to keep talking, keep collaborating, keep learning from each other, and keep sharing knowledge. Only through working together – both across disciplines and across borders – can we overcome the complex challenges that lie ahead in the High North.

References:

Kristoffersen, B. and Brigt Dale (2014), ‘Post-Petroleum Security in Lofoten: Why identity matters’, Arctic review on law and politics, Vol 5, No 2, 201-226. Arctic review on law and politics, Vol 5, No 2. 201-226.