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Friday, March 1, 2024

Power struggle threatens critical polar research

Norway managed to settle a 40-year-old conflict with Russia this week over their Arctic areas, but two Norwegian government ministries reportedly can’t agree themselves on funding for a new vessel needed for critical research in the same area. The power struggle deeply worries the researchers.

The polar research vessel "Lance" needs to be replaced. It was built in 1978, modified for research in 1981 and rebuilt again in 1992. A new vessel could also take part in search and rescue operations. PHOTO: Norsk Polarinstitutt

The head of Norsk Polarinstitutt (The Norwegian Polar Institute) took the unusual step on Thursday of going public in newspaper Aftenposten with his concerns. Jan-Gunnar Winther told Aftenposten that unless the Norwegian government finally agrees on funding for the research vessel, Norway will lose its status as a so-called “polar nation.”

Efforts to build a new research vessel have been going on since 2001. The institute’s current fleet contains ships that are old and outdated, and soon won’t be able to do the field work needed to conduct climate and polar research.

“If Norway doesn’t invest in a new, ice-breaking research vessel, we will be utterly left behind as a polar nation,” Winther told Aftenposten. “It looks like the government is once again going to postpone plans for a new vessel, and that’s extremely serious.”

Winther said that this week’s settlement of Norway’s lengthy border dispute with Russia makes it even more important for a strong Norwegian research presence in the Arctic. It takes at least four years to build a modern research vessel, so he’s keen to get construction underway.

Instead he fears that the ministry controlling his institute, Miljøverndepartementet (Ministry for the Environment), is caught in a power struggle with the ministry in charge of fishing and coastal issues, Fiskeri- og kystdepartementet. A new research vessel will cost about NOK 1.1 billion (USD 180 million). The delays aren’t caused by a lack of money, but by disagreement between the two ministries over which one will play the leading role over the maritime environment. 

Winther, a highly respected figure in polar and climate research, concedes that he’s taking a risk by airing his concerns and call for action, but notes the alleged power struggle has been “uncomfortable” for the institute as it seeks to move the vessel project forward. One key problem is that the environmental ministry “owns” the Polar Institute, while much of the actual research work is funded by the fisheries ministry through its Havforskningsinstitutt. Winther seeks a compromise that would have the vessel owned by the environmental ministry and operated by the fisheries ministry. Instead there are signs that no budget allocations for a new vessel will be made this year at all.

Winther has the support of the research community, including the acting head of the research institute Ole Arve Misund. He told Aftenposten there is “no doubt” that it’s “completely necessary” to build a new research vessel that can get through the ice.

Aftenposten reported that it tried to set up an interview with Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen. Instead she opted to send an e-mail in which she wrote that the government “is still working with preparations” for a “foundation” on which it can base a decision “to be able to acquire” a new polar research vessel. She wrote that it “wasn’t possible” to predict when a decision would be made.

Heidi Sørensen, state secretary in the environmental ministry, also sent an e-mail,  claiming there was “close cooperation” between several ministries on the project, but that “quality control” was needed before a decision could be made.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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