The Arctic region needs dialogue between local people and science

This year, the Associated International Conference and Rectors' Forum of the University of the Arctic (UArctic) cooperative network was held in Aberdeen, Scotland, under the theme Conversations from the North. The talks given underscored the cooperation between local people and researchers – that is the only way by which the life in the Arctic can be genuinely improved.

The University of the Arctic's (UArctic) Conversations from the North Conference and Rectors' Forum, held at the end of August, opened many perspectives on the North. The Arctic Circle and the circumpolar North may well be geographical designations, but, when regarded in a larger scale, the North is actually only a philosophical concept. The images of the North are strongly generated by the media, formed by the culture. Therefore, conversation is indeed needed in the North and on the North – both in multi-disciplinary research arenas and in society at large as well.

At the moment, the best known popular-culture allegory of the North is the television series Game of Thrones. However, the real North is not a distant and cold, ice-covered area inhabited by the wildlings and White Walkers from where only a few return alive – although, when presented in a pointed way, it could turn to such.

Stereotypes partly affect the way in which the Arctic research is funded, how much funding is provided, and what is the attitude towards the Arctic region in research. The field of science needs humanists to change the ways of thinking and the mental picture of the North.

Research for the Arctic

In natural scientific research in particular, the Arctic region is often treated as a laboratory, where many phenomena are stronger and more visible than elsewhere. Researchers examine the world through theory. The real world is the test environment, where the phenomena are detected. The final goal is often to formulate theories and even larger models.

The Associated International Conference of the University of the Arctic (UArctic) cooperative network was held in Aberdeen, Scotland. In the picture, the author of the article Essi Oikarinen is the third person from the right in front (photo: University of Aberdeen).

However, a lesser part of the research is made for the Arctic, in such a way that research would directly improve the living conditions in the Arctic region. This question was examined in a two-hour panel discussion between rectors, where the suggested solution was intensified cooperation of the research community with the locals, the people living in the North.

“Science should function as an equal partner with the locals,” Arja Rautio, Research Professor of Arctic Health at the University of Oulu outlined in the University of Oulu's address. In the Arctic conversation, the central question is to examine who is asking the questions and on whose rules – is it researchers from their own theoretical viewpoint or are they also listening to the needs of indigenous people?

Bringing research out of its ivory tower among people

Arctic research is being steered by different regulations in different countries. The panel also discussed, whether, as a cooperative network, the UArctic could compile comprehensive ethical guidelines for research concerning indigenous people covering the whole Arctic area. The knowledge of researchers could also be increased by offering more courses concerning indigenous people at universities.

Nikolai Vakhtin, rector of the European University at St. Petersburg, pointed out that the conversation needs to be attached to the present day. Today, research of indigenous people should also be performed in an urban environment, taking account of the context. Indigenous people no longer live in their own communities only, but in dialogue with the dominant culture. Vakhtin pointed out how the Google search ‘Arctic people’ produces only pictures of individuals belonging to indigenous tribes in their traditional costumes in the middle of a winter landscape. It is time to update such images.

At the end of the conference, the ball was thrown to Oulu. The next UArctic meeting, the Rectors’ Forum and Conference will be held in Oulu next autumn. There we will probably see a working group and further conversation on how to approach local communities in a methodological manner. Events will take place both in Oulu and Helsinki. A science train will travel between the two universities. Further information on the UArctic 2018 conference is available at:


Text: Essi Oikarinen

Essi Oikarinen is a post-graduate student at the Oulu School of Architecture, who participated in the UArctic Conference and Student Forum event in Aberdeen on 23-28 August 2017.


Last updated: 6.11.2017