Scanning the Horizon: A Discussion on Polar Research Priorities

In this blog post, PDRA Morgan Ip reflects on his participation in the Oxford University Polar Forum Horizon Scan Workshop last month.

In my second week with the Arctic Cultures project, I participated in a research scoping workshop hosted by the Oxford University Polar Forum (OUPF). The workshop was an opportunity for me to meet new colleagues, get a sense of wider research conversations beyond my particular focus, and for the Arctic Cultures project to engage with the Oxford research network. I was also interested to see how inclusive and equitable participation was considered for these research discussions.

Participants sent research priorities to the organizers prior to the workshop, and over the course of three days we discussed and attempted to refine and consolidate them into a concise list. We toggled between plenary sessions and break out groups to handle the vast research interests of the disparate group. Quite the challenge indeed! With such diverse backgrounds, it was perhaps inevitable that some of the discussions revolved about language clarity, which may differ from discipline to discipline. Also, while some dug into the details of their research expertise, others were concerned with broader approaches to research itself, such as community engagement and outreach. This was most evident with consideration to Indigenous knowledge and participation.

The Arctic contains multiple homelands and Indigenous participation in polar research and discourse is, or should be, foundational. The workshop organizers crowdsourced additional funding to cover costs for indigenous researchers, although some last-minute travel circumstances meant that not all anticipated participants could attend in-person. While I credit the OUPF for seriously and sincerely considering this elemental inclusion, the difficulty in attaining a high level of community and indigenous participation highlights that we still need further progress in terms of how non-Indigenous researchers, institutions and funding bodies approach collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and capacity-sharing endeavours. Upon suggestion from an Inuit colleague, the organizers circulated the Inuit Circumpolar Council guidelines on working with communities to the delegates to assist with several concerns in this regard.

Enduring institutional and financial resources may help support multi-directional building of knowledge and science and respond to technological and spatial distances. There may be opportunities to streamline institutional relationships with communities over time so that each new research project or funding cycle isn`t reinventing the wheel. Further, while it can be difficult to have broad, circumpolar, local community and indigenous engagement in a single workshop, we must collectively be wary not to over-rely on those participants who do attend and engage. Efforts can be made to not spread energy too thinly, primarily because individual researchers do not necessarily speak on behalf of an entire community. This can also lead to well-documented issues of research and participation fatigue. The limitations of a distant workshop may possibly be addressed with wide circulation of research programmes and agendas among research entities in the North, and enhanced clarity in definitions and language.

Another point in the discussions relating to openness and inclusion were on our own interests as individuals, and how we may work with communities to match and advance research questions. The formulation of precise research questions, while useful in finessing research aims, may at once be too prescriptive for co-formulating research at the community level. In the final plenary, to address this short-coming, we decided on collective next steps to ensure that polar communities have a leading say in what would be the ultimate research priorities.

The horizon scan, while gauging future research priorities in the upcoming decade, also acted as a network activity to incubate new potential research projects and collaborations. Our workshop results will, for example, be sent to the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) to inform the International Conference on Arctic Research Planning (ICARP) IV. While the days were long, not once was I fatigued, as the discussions were lively and captivating. This was the first in-person workshop or conference many of us had participated in since the pandemic began, and the importance of human-to-human contact cannot be ignored. Discussions continued during our lunch breaks and dinners, and upon the workshop`s conclusion many of us took in an impromptu city tour. It is with gratitude that I thank my hosts at OUPF and many new colleagues in the polar research world.


Image 1: Welcome plenary at the OUPF Horizon Scan Workshop. Photograph by M. Ip, 7 September 2022.

Image 2: Breakout groupwork in the Diversity Room, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Photograph by M. Ip, 8 September 2022.

Image 2: Group at work in the Diversity Room, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Photograph by M. Ip, 8 September 2022.