The International Science Initiative in the Russian Arctic (ISIRA) is a Russian and international cooperative initiative to assist Russian Arctic science and sustainable development in the Russian Arctic by:
Initiating planning of multinational research programs that address specific key problems in the Russian Arctic;
Providing a forum for linking on-going or planned bilateral projects;
Facilitating improved scientific access to the Russian Arctic;
Advising on funding and organizing implementation of projects.
IASC was founded just after the end of the Cold War and as circumarctic cooperation was about to emerge. However, there were several barriers to overcome before such cooperation could become a reality. A lack of contact networks between eastern and western scientists, language barriers, and funding opportunities were just a few of the challenges.
Toward the end of the Soviet Union, a few bilateral agreements had been signed and some progress had been made in joint arctic studies. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic problems severely handicapped Russian Arctic scientists and science institutions – a community that could contribute significantly to addressing some of the vast environmental and other challenges in the Russian Arctic and beyond.
For western Arctic scientists, the Russian Arctic – covering almost half of the Arctic polar region – constituted a wealth of research opportunities both in the natural sciences and also, to some extent, in the human and social sciences.
After a short period of time when foreign research groups flooded into the Russian Arctic (a region that had been mainly forbidden to foreigners), a federal access system was put in place with permits and logistical requirements.
The idea of an International Science Initiative in the Russian Arctic (ISIRA) was launched in 1993. This was a Russian and international cooperative initiative designed to assist arctic science and sustainable development in the Russian Arctic by:
- Initiating multinational research programs that would address specific key problems in the Russian Arctic;
- Providing a forum to link on-going or planned bilateral projects to achieve added value and avoid duplication;
- Facilitating improved scientific access to the Russian Arctic;
- Advising on funding and organizing the implementation of agreed-upon projects.
At first, the ISIRA secretariat (served by the IASC Secretariat) was focused on identifying potential partners on both sides, pushing for funding opportunities (from the European Union – EU, and national sources), and promoting the Russian Arctic as an outstanding laboratory for both natural, and human or social sciences.
In 1993, ISIRA was organized as an international group advising the IASC Executive Committee on the development and promotion of international cooperation in the Russian Arctic. Members were from countries with bilateral projects in the Russian Arctic, and from the Russian side participants included a representative from the Academy, one from the major polar research agency (the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute – AARI), and a key person from the federal bureaucracy.
Initially, ten countries appointed members to this group. Russia was naturally a key stakeholder in this initiative and several authorities were involved, reflected in the troika composition of Russian representation in the group.
Russian policies and regulations with regard to their northern regions changed rather often, so increasingly field activities had to be based mainly on bilateral collaborations (some of which were very successful). As a result, the multinational program idea diminished. However, membership in ISIRA also had value for sharing information through regular updates.
Information was a basic need both for members of the ISIRA group and for anyone else interested in undertaking research in the Russian Arctic. In the beginning, such information was made available on the IASC website. Later, AARI developed a very good information website as a part of their role as the IPY Eurasian Sub-Office (see: www.ipyeaso.aari.ru). Hopefully, this website will continue to operate for many years.
Several projects emerged under this initiative, both in the natural and the social sciences.
An example of a major natural science project is Land-Ocean Interactions in the Russian Arctic (LOIRA). This Russian-led project developed its own science plan using the template of the international Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone (LOICZ) Science Plan and the European Land-Ocean Interaction Studies (ELOISE) plan. The project involved extensive fieldwork in the coastal zones of the Pechora Sea and the White Sea. Several workshops were organized over the years with considerable multinational participation. Annual outputs were recorded in annual workshop publications. Some of the research outputs can be found in the publications referenced at the end of this chapter. The LOIRA concluded in 2005 after about 10 years of successful planning and implementation.
Problems of Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Arctic was a project development process based on workshops in which users (indigenous peoples and GOSCOMSEVER - the State Committee for Social and Economic Development of the North) defined their priority problems, which then should be addressed by scientists working with the users. In total, four projects were chosen and work was started. Unfortunately, GOSCOMSEVER was abolished and succeeded by the Russian Finance Ministry, which informed IASC that these projects were no longer acceptable. Consequently, one project was transferred to the Caribou/Reindeer project (IASC), one was completed during the summer of 2001, and the last two were merged into one (‘Health and Nutrition’) and became a significant Russian contribution to the circumarctic project “Nutrition and Health of Northern Indigenous Peoples (NUHIP): Interactions with ethnicity, social status and environment.”
Over the years, the activities of ISIRA have changed, from the initial ‘partnership’ role, to bringing scientists together for project development workshops, funding advice, etc., to linking related bilateral projects. Because the next generation has other obstacles to address, changes are being implemented to assist young scientists.