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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - May 2005   

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Title  European research priorities in polar regions

At the European Commission, Ib Troen supervises various joint research programmes being carried out in polar regions. An interview.

Ib Troen visiting the North Greenland ice core project in 1997.
Ib Troen visiting the North Greenland ice core project in 1997.
© Ib Troen
Is there a clear European strategy for polar research?
We cannot really talk about a "polar strategy". Within the European scientific community, many researchers are carrying out work in this kind of field. But this community is highly diverse and does not constitute a single entity. Some researchers are interested in how ice evolves, while others are looking at sediments, greenhouse gases or biodiversity. Joint and cross-disciplinary meetings are organised. And research programmes are involving increasing numbers of partners from outside the EU, for example from Russia. These efforts naturally receive political backing. But at the level of the European Commission, there is no research theme that could be qualified as ‘polar’.

Should we then be talking about priority themes which are relevant to the polar regions?
That is closer to the reality. For example, one of our priorities is the study of climate development. This type of research is indeed carried out in polar regions and requires the involvement of different disciplines. Research programmes targeting geographical regions tend to be rarer, although there have been some exceptions, notably concerning the Mediterranean basin.

What are the main European programmes being carried out in this type of environment?
In the first instance, the Commission provided support for ice coring projects, such as the GRIP project in Greenland, which was carried out in partnership with the European Science Foundation (ESF). The success of this project certainly contributed to the subsequent decision to launch the EPICA programme, this time in the Antarctic. EPICA has now shown that it can compete on equal terms with identical projects commissioned by other countries, such as the United States or Russia. We should remember that in this last winter, drilling by EPICA broke all records with respect to the age of the ice extracted from a polar ice cap, at 900,000 years.

In other areas, still linked to recent programmes on world climate change, we should also mention the Arctic Ice Cover Simulation Experiment (AICSEX) project, which has focused on the Arctic ice cap, its evolution and modelling. Other programmes concern thermohaline circulation. In this area, new data are now available to help us refine the models and will open up new perspectives for the measurement of marine currents, temperatures, carbon uptake, atmospheric circulation and pollution, etc.

Do you think there is a certain preference for projects in one hemisphere rather than the other?
It is clear that programmes in the Arctic polar regions are more attractive than research carried out in the southern hemisphere. Particularly because the former have a direct impact on the European Union and its citizens, and also because the region is more accessible. In the context of polar research, where a high proportion of the budget is allocated to logistics, this factor is of considerable importance.

What role will polar research have to play in the next Framework Programme?
Climate change remains a crucial theme within the European Union. But it is too soon to say how much priority will be given to it in the next Framework Programme, and which disciplines will be involved. There may be a resurgence of interest in the problem of aerosols, for example, which have an effect on radiation, its absorption and the physics of clouds. The content of the 7th Framework Programme has not yet been decided.

Might the European Union consider a new major infrastructure for polar research?
Not as such. We will not be building a Joint Research Centre, such as ISPRA, in polar or subpolar regions. This type of very costly initiative could be organised in the context of a partnership with Member States. If relevant, we could then provide support for national initiatives. This is clearly a topic for discussion in relation to development of the European Research Area, which we are pursuing while facilitating the coordination of national efforts.

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