Inaugural Barents Summer School brings researchers face-to-face with local leaders

Group portrait of Barents Summer School 2014 students, teachers and local leaders.
Barents Summer School 2014 students, teachers and local leaders participated in a panel debate Thursday to exchange ideas.

The inaugural Barents Summer School held this week in Kirkenes was initiated as part of the 20th anniversary 2013 summit of the Kirkenes Declaration.


Twenty-four Ph.D. students including Norwegian, Russian, Finnish and Swedish students, some of them representing the Sami population, and one student from Hong Kong gathered to establish international collaborative relationships and learn about conducting epidemiological research: Studies of disease patterns, causes and effects over time. 

The one-week course centered around human health issues in the cross-border Barents region. Students who attended are researchers in a variety of subjects ranging from suicides among indigenous populations to the effects of pollution on infants born to exposed mothers.

“It is important for us as young people and researchers to get a chance to meet and work together,” Russian student and neonatologist Anna Usynina told BarentsObserver. “These are issues that we all have in common.” 

A major factor in human health issues in the Barents region is pollution from the nickel smelters in Nickel and Zapolyarny, Russia just across the border. Researchers are trying to track the effects of the pollutants from mothers through to infants and the effects over time in the lives of children born to exposed mothers. 

The birth registry is a good example of the need for cooperation, Usynina says, because Norway does not have a large enough population exposed to the toxins to effectively study changes and Russia needs a database of information on effects.

However, one problem with conducting research in small populations is that it can be hard to find statistical significance in data based on such limited numbers.  How to research in the confines of this difficult situation is part of the focus of the 2014 Barents Summer School. 

To help students understand the issues facing local populations, a panel debate was held Thursday with experts and local leaders including Kirkenes Mayor Cecilie Hansen; County Governor’s committee on climate and the environment leader Bente Christiansen; Kolarctic project representatives Andy Gilman, Evert Nierboer, David Leon and Arja Rautio; and International Barents Secretariat Environmental Hot Spot Adviser Tuuli Ojala. 

The panel debate was a volley of many questions, but answers are harder to discuss. For example, another issue is new mining operations in all four countries and the problem of dumping waste in the fjords where it can spread to the sea and affect marine life. While the alternative of dumping on land has been proposed, there are also problems with the tailings ponds that hold the waste, such as leaching into the surrounding areas. 

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to create tailings ponds that work. It just requires proper engineering, maintenance and testing,” says Evert Nieboer. Evert is a Canadian guest-lecturer to the Barents Summer School who has studied pollution from Nikel for 25 years through creation of a birth registry funded jointly by Norway and Canada. He and Canadian Andy Gilman of the University of Ottawa also contributed knowledge from a historically problematic nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario. 

Student researchers are also trained in how to communicate results effectively and facilitate the relationship between scientists and stakeholders, local politicians and exposed populations. Scientists can be confusing, Nieboer points out, and findings can sound paradoxical.

Mayor Hansen says there are not enough scientists working in Kirkenes and researchers are considering more sampling in town as opposed to outside town closer to the plant. But, Hansen says, the panel was helpful to get everyone thinking about the local issues.

“The combination of local knowledge and higher education knowledge can produce effective results,” Hansen told BarentsObserver. “It is important for me to know how researchers think about the problems, and it is important for them to know how I think about local problems.” 

The melting of sea ice that could facilitate an easier route to China could make Kirkenes an extremely important location in the future, Hansen said. “Everything that’s good for Murmansk is good for Kirkenes.” 

But post-doctoral researcher Erik Anda pointed out that the melting of sea ice could bring about other unexpected, negative changes for the area. Associate Professor Torkjel Sandanger said it is also important in research to factor in the impacts of increased industry on local populations and the demographic changes that come along with it such as the influx of a new labor force. 

Thursday’s panel could be themed as knowledge transfer. Young researchers need to know what issues are important and how best to produce results that are usable for local populations and political decision-makers, while an older generation of scientists grooms protégés to take over important scientific legacies in cross-border Barents research fueled by decades of cooperation. 

The Barents Summer School is a four-year program that will include summer sessions held in each of the four participating universities: Tromso, Norway; Oulu, Finland; Umeå, Sweden; and Arkhangelsk, Russia. The June 2015 Barents Summer School held at Umeå University, Sweden will focus on climate change effects on the arctic landscape.