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Published

10 April 2017

Researcher portrait: Annika E. Nilsson and Arctic meetings

Annika E. Nilsson embarked on research relatively late in life, but is nonetheless one of our most experienced Arctic experts. She has now been appointed a Mistra Fellow, to investigate the scope and limitations of policy. The key to the future of the Arctic, after all, is cooperation.

As Nilsson says, ‘Discussion is the most important tool we have.’

We meet at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Östermalm, Stockholm. Annika E. Nilsson has booked the smallest conference room to escape the big, open office space where she works. Hanging on the corridor walls are panoramic images of Svalbard’s rugged coastline — photographs taken by Nilsson herself.

Nilsson is due to leave shortly on a visit to Washington DC and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank where she spends part of her time as a Mistra Fellow. She is to carry out a case study of the USA’s role in relation to the Arctic, and will plan a workshop on the Arctic and the world for tomorrow’s leaders.

Her job is also to think: ‘A fellowship like this provides the opportunity to think new thoughts.’

One such thought is what long-term sustainability means for people who are financially dependent on oil production in the Arctic at present. What will happen to the local communities whose livelihood is currently based on oil and gas in the future, when fossil fuels are no longer capable of competing with other forms of energy?

‘We must have visions for that,’ she says.

Interested in power and rights

Nilsson’s research in Mistra Arctic Sustainable Development and her interest in the Arctic extend beyond thawing ice caps and endangered polar bears. They concern power, interests and rights for the region’s inhabitants when their living conditions change.

 The Arctic is, in her view, a region where not only major problems but also great opportunities are concentrated.

‘The fact is that the Arctic Council is a context in which the big powers’ dialogue actually works — often because discussion is the only way to get anything done,’ she says.

It was different in the 1980s. The Arctic was then a theatre of the Cold War, where the great powers flexed their military muscles. Submarines bearing nuclear warheads lurked beneath the ice in the North Arctic Ocean, prepared to strike back against a nuclear attack.

It was this interplay between science and politics that prompted Nilsson to start doing research at the age of 44, as a PhD student at Linköping University.

She already had a long career as a science journalist behind her. Since the early 1980s, she had earned her living by writing reports and making radio programmes about environmental policy, acidification, genetic engineering, biotechnology, nitrogen eutrophication and the like — all the issues of the day.

‘The fact is that I’ve been a journalist longer than I’ve been a researcher,’ she says.

 As one of Sweden’s first science journalists, hers was a tailor-made education. Her parents were a doctor and a chemist. After following the Natural Science line at upper secondary school in Mölndal and writing diligently for the school magazine, Nilsson travelled to Kansas. The university there offered a course in science journalism. She also met her life partner there and stayed for four years.

‘When I started working, science journalism was in high demand. What I mean is not so much popular science as the kind of journalism that places research in a social and political context.’

Driven by curiosity

In journalism, she found an arena for her curiosity and desire to find out what was going on. Doors opened and she gained access to interesting people and contexts. She remembers a voyage on a research ship, from the southern tip of Chile to the Antarctic, on which her task was to study research on how the thinner ozone layer affected marine life. Her impressions were then recorded in a book.

She was also an early author of a book on climate change — one she thinks is still reasonably up to date, at least in part, although it was written 27 years ago.

‘The fundamental scientific parts are surprisingly applicable to this day. Even then, decent calculations on the scope of climate change were feasible, although nowadays we’re a tremendous lot more sophisticated. The really new elements are observations and analyses of climate change from social and geopolitical perspectives,’ she says.

Nilsson seized a chance to represent the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company at the legendary Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. There was an outer section and an inner one, and the Swedish journalists on the spot shared a single entry card to the inner, more interesting part. This card constantly changed hands among the Swedish journalists.

In Rio she saw something new. Not only researchers were there: politicians, environmental organisations, representatives of civil society from every country worldwide were all present — and all talking to one another.

Suddenly, environmental problems were added to the same agenda as the other global issues facing society.

‘The environment and development became connected. Issues of justice, starvation and poverty came up. It wasn’t the first time, of course. But Rio was where these issues emerged in such a clear focus. I thought it was extremely exciting.’

Eyes upturned, she seems to be searching the bright spots in her memory. The Rio Summit is an event to which she has returned in her scientific writings as well.

Interface of research and politics in the Arctic

Nilsson was tasked with popularising a scientific report on pollution in the Arctic. A working group in the forerunner to the Arctic Council engaged her services, and it was a fairly typical assignment for a freelance science journalist.

But there, too, she found herself in a political melting-pot. The situation involved not only researchers but also politicians from countries with interests in the Arctic. They wanted to join in formulating headings and summaries.

‘The Russians didn’t want it to be clear how big a share of pollution across the Arctic they were responsible for. The Americans wanted to keep a lid on the data on radioactive residues from military activities.”

Nilsson saw clearly that research is different when it takes place in a political context. Political issues colour their surroundings.

‘It isn’t as if politics changes research results. But it affects what questions are asked, how summaries are written and how the whole topic is presented. As a science journalist, I was able to argue for my choices — not least when it came to headings and introductory paragraphs, although everything was based on the researchers’ analyses.’

She also saw how politics opens doors for new knowledge.

‘That was really the most interesting thing: the fact that the political context brings together researchers from different areas, and that it generates new research questions and new knowledge.’

Thus, the fact that her own research studies subsequently addressed the Arctic was not a matter of chance. Nor was the fact that they were carried out at Linköping University, with an interdisciplinary emphasis.

‘My thesis is a mix of international relations, political science and environmental science. I usually call myself “undisciplined”, as I can be a bit rebellious, and flourish most outside the usual cages.’

Still writing: a recurrent career theme

In her research, Nilsson became aware that her 20 years’ experience as a journalist did not always count in scientific circles.

‘The qualifications had a limited value in some contexts. I often felt I was 20 years behind. But it doesn’t matter so much now.’

Writing academically is not at all the same as producing journalism.

‘You have to be a tremendous lot more methodical when you write scientific articles. You’re not free to write however you like, and you also have to show how your research builds on what other people have done before.’

Freedoms and a lack of them, then, are inherent in both careers. Nonetheless, what gives Nilsson satisfaction is writing. In the dynamic process, thoughts are clarified and ideas sharpened. New ones appear. And in the most euphoric moments there is ‘flow’.

‘To me, the combination of analysing and formulating information is extremely creative,’ she says.

A few days after the interview, Nilsson is travelling to Washington DC. There, she gets more time to write and think. One question that keeps cropping up in her mind is what will happen when oil becomes obsolete.

‘It’s not just about oil, and not just about the Arctic. It affects many societies and communities where economic conditions will change. It’s important for the lack of alternative income sources not to generate resistance and delay necessary development,’ she says.

About Annika E. Nilsson

Works at the Stockholm Environment Institute and is linked to the Mistra programme ‘Mistra Arctic Sustainable Development’.

Family: wife, teenage son and Icelandic sheepdog Flekka.

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