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SPRI Review 2000: SPRI Review 2000

SPRI Review 2000

Science and Development Research Group

Dr Michael T. Bravo
Dr Valerie Alia, Dr Hugh Brody, Laura Cameron, Professor Keith Richards
Iroo Joo, Sean K. Maher, Richard C. Powell

The appointment of Dr Michael Bravo to a university lectureship in geography was the occasion to initiate a new research group at the Institute. Dr Bravo's training has been multidisciplinary: electrical engineering, anthropology, and the history and philosophy of science. The broad purpose of the research group in this early stage is to examine the changing socio-technical faces of the Arctic and Antarctica. As new cultural forms in the Arctic lead to new kinds of problems, debates about the authenticity and legitimacy of knowledge claims grow increasingly controversial. The natural sciences no longer operate in a vacuum, if ever they once did. The human and social sciences cannot genuinely understand societies while ignoring their scientific and technological constituents. This group aspires to examine the interface between these and to understand how certain kinds of local knowledge practices are becoming ever more critical for understanding the polar world (religious, precision measurement, literacy).

The group's regional expertise is weighted towards the United States, Canada, Greenland, and the Nordic nations. This both complements, and, to a certain extent, overlaps that of the Social Sciences and Russian Studies Group. The Alaska Native Land Corporations, the emergence of Inuit self-determination in Nunavut, and Home Rule in Greenland are just three of the contexts where the significance of knowledge for the well-being of those northern societies and environments, and their perception on a world stage, is played out differently.

Although the group has a broadly defined brief, its attention is focused on changing configurations of the polar regions as fields of enquiry. We see current epistemic disputes over the relationship between science and indigenous knowledge as important but ill-conceived.

Much contemporary writing about the field sciences is largely imported from metropolitan models of laboratory science. The growing tension between these metropolitan models and the notion of the field as a place where its inhabitants regulate the research environment is a key debate in participatory development and conservation. The group has strong disciplinary allegiances to geography, history of science, and anthropology. The problematic divide between the human and social sciences on the one hand, and the natural sciences on the other hand, are a central concern for us because they structure both our methods of enquiry and the terms in which the polar regions are broadly conceived.

The use of mapping and communications technologies in development is an area of special interest for the group. Maps have the capacity to project and anticipate future developments as well as to describe societies and landscapes in the past and present. Naming the land plays an integral role in the formation of social identities and carries a history of the traditions of communication. Land-claims mapping since its advent in the Arctic in the 1970s has served to translate indigenous traditions into the language of courts of law and tribunals of science. Domestic satellite broadcasting has to varying extents created the conditions for northern broadcasting, and, arguably, the infrastructure that has made possible self-determination in Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland. Satellite remote sensing imagery has simultaneously played a critical role in creating a new visual language for understanding polar environments. In different ways the research group aims to take stock of these mapping legacies to understand changing political configurations and regimes of environmental management.

The group incorporates historical studies into its analyses of issues of development. By studying the history of fieldwork in the natural and social sciences, the formation of scientific disciplines, and differing geographical concepts of the region, present-day debates about knowledge claims can be understood in context. Historical precedents can be used to understand new controversies over topics as diverse as the Icelandic human genome project or the conservation of Lake Vostok in Antarctica.