Instituto Antártico Chileno

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Dr. Steven Chown: “It is really interesting work coming out of Chile”

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26 de nov del 2018

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Dr. Steven Chown President of SCAR

Dr. Chown is the current president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and is a member of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University in Australia. He was previously head of this school (2013-2017) and director of the Department of Science and Technology of the National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) Center of Excellence for Invasion Biology (2004-2012) as well as professor of Zoology at the University of Stellenbosch (the last two in South Africa). He has an extensive history involving many areas of research, ranging from insect physiology to the performance of sub-Antarctic ecosystems and diversity protection in the face of environmental changes. His principal focus is on the variation of physiological characteristics or features over time and space, and the ecological and conservation implications of these variations.

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Dr. Chown’s interests also include biological conservation, global environmental change, macro-ecology, and macro-physiology. He has published hundreds of scientific articles, with over 25 years of experience as an Antarctic researcher, and was one of the distinguished conference participants at the IX Latin American Congress on Antarctic Science, held in Punta Arenas in October, 2017, where we had the opportunity to talk to him.

What is the importance of science and particularly Antarctic Science for society?

Steven Chown (SC): At the moment and in fact through the history the most successful way of understanding the world that’s given rise to enormous progress, is through the scientific method. When our decisions are based on good evidence, of course they are not the only things that influence our decisions, but when they are based on good evidence generally we find they are very good outcomes. And so science really is the approach that we use as people to achieve a better world for ourselves and in some instances and I think that this science will continue to improve for the world at large.

Antarctic science has an extremely important role to play in this process and it has for some time in understanding the way the world works and in making some very fundamental discoveries that have influenced how we see the world as people which are really incredibly important, but at the moment I think that what’s become even more pressing is understanding the Antarctic continent and especially the cryosphere, the ice on the Antarctic continent, has an enormous role to play in the way that our world works. So in terms of ocean circulation, the formation of bottom water and in terms of sea level. As we looked to the past to try to find out what sea levels looked like in the last interglacial or in the Pliocene, we see some signs that sea levels were much higher than they are now, of course, and we are now in a situation where we are above 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere, we understand that the marine bisectors of icesheet are unstable above that and then it 600 there is real instability of the whole ice sheet. That means that we have to think hard about what the Antarctic ice sheets will mean for the rest of the world, for our daily lives everywhere and it’s particularly important for coastal regions in terms of how we do our development, what we do into the future, what the influence is on people of all incomes but especially with a growing population of people in informal settlements which tend to find the worst spaces in cities to live because nobody else will want to. That’s key, I think.

Another part of it is to understand the Southern Ocean ecosystem that is a huge life support system. There’s CO2 draw down through photosynthesis, there’s some resources that we use and of course there’s just the sheer majesty of the whole region. That has a very important place I think in people’s psychology. And again Antarctic science goes to the heart of a how does that system work and what will happen when it’s disturbed, what will happen when we have changes in sea ice, what will happen when we have declining pH as a consequence of acidification- how does that influence these organisms, these animals that build their bodies essentially their outer casings are made of aragonite which is a calcium based external shell and which of course can dissolve if the ocean becomes too acidic. And then what happens when we push the temperature. I think these are really important questions, that not only go to the heart of how the Antarctic works but to the heart how our society will look into the future.

You mentioned several issues in which social sciences and humanities have a lot to say. What is your vision of the role of Social Sciences and Humanities in the Antarctic context?

SC: There’s an important role in understanding, at least to begin with the things that seem quite obvious: what’s the history, how did it come about and how we changed, how we changed the way we explored the world, how we changed the demographics of the people who are doing that exploration and of course straightforward things such as how does it change people, what’s the influence on society seeing this continent and so on. There’s a second component to it that perhaps not as well explored yet, but there is science that is coming and that is how do we use what we understand from that area to change behavior, so one of the things that struck me is that often when people go to the continent they come back with a changed perception of their world, not only of the continent, but of their world. The learning that can come from the social sciences and humanities on how we change our behavior to actually drive a better world, an outcome different to the one that we actually see playing at the moment. It’s quite an important consideration and I think that’s a really significant role of the social sciences and humanities in the Antarctic.

What do you think of international collaboration?

SC: I have two perspectives. The first one, a local perspective, in the sense that if you think about collaborating between different countries you’re often collaborating across different languages and cultures and that’s a completely different way of seeing things. Language is… you obviously have multiple languages, at least two, but probably maybe some more. You understand that to express yourself in different languages requires a different pattern of thought. That interaction generates novelty in science, new ways of seeing, so that’s the first one. And that’s a simple one which is often scientist-to-scientist.

The second one is that some of our major scientific challenges are the fundamental or more applied, really big questions and those big questions require multiple minds and multiple nations to address and some of them are really expensive to address if we going, for example, for sediment coring or ice cores, they really big expensive programs and only through collaboration can we actually achieve that. In addition, there is an efficiency as you recognize to collaboration where if countries get together and work together, then they can actually just through what one would call economies of scale, reduce the cost of the operations and yet not compromise those operations or safety or the science that’s done or the quality. So, in my view, international collaboration is absolutely essential. It’s a driver of good science and it’s a driver of good and efficient Antarctic science.

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Your personal vision about the reasons why the environmental issues are now so important for society?

SC: If you look through the history of environmental awareness, it actually goes back a long time. One’s perspective is always quite close to what your history was in the past. I think that we had real social problems in the period during the Second World War and following that and then we had some really good actual social programs like the New Deal, in the us, which is a bit before that, but real social democracy in many countries. And we also have very rapid development in many places and that rapid development was done to help people out of a time of crisis. Slowly we started realizing through various people, in the Anglophone literature, anyway Rachel Carson, for example, with chemical pesticides. And others started saying, hey, hang on a moment, what is the impact on the natural world and what is the capability of that world of supporting us and I think that now people have realized that we might be reaching the planet’s limits, so there really are limits to what the planet can sustain and these planetary boundaries are now in danger of being exceeded and I think that our concerns on our mind have been raised a lot because we are actually seeing it for the first time, it’s playing a big role in peoples lives for the first time, weather’s unusual, the extreme events we see, the Caribbean cyclone, tropical cyclone season, has been devastating this year. I think that now we starting to realize something has to be done and in consequence environmental awareness has grown tremendously and very quickly. And maybe not quick enough but certainly going as quickly as it can.

Talking about scar, which are your priorities as president of it?

SC: When I spoken initially to the delegates last year in Kuala Lumpur I’m as I come into the scar presidency I said there were four things that I would be focusing on: the first was quite a standard thing and that is to make sure we have a very efficient office so that we can support our scientists, because scar is about science facilitation. The more efficient we are the more we can support scientists across the world.

The second point that I focused on was to ensure that we continue to do the very best science that is relevant to the region in our new science research programs and that also has global relevance. So science excellence focus has to stay.

The third one was to ensure that we continue to build capacity and by that I mean to ensure that we help early- and mid-career researchers where they reach out for help, that we provide mentorship programs, that we encourage countries that are new to Antarctic science to become involved with us and to learn from others who are very experienced like Chile is very experienced in Antarctic science in the Latin American context, and others can learn.

And then the final one was to ensure that our engagement with the policy world not only continues to be strong through the Antarctic Treaty, which is an essential treaty, but also remembers that are other international agreements, that scar is actually subsidiary of icsu (International Council for Science). We also serve other agreements, for example the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, we provide some advice there, we have members that go to the ipcc. icsu itself has said that icsu’s bodies of science must contribute to the sustainable development clause so scar has a role there of course because within them is climate change, and health and several things of course you can see the connection to the Antarctic very quickly.

So those are the four top priorities and underpinning that is always of the search for additional support from different places and I will give you an example. scar and the world meteorological organization are busy finalizing an agreement for further fellowships to support researchers working on climate questions.

What is your vision of the Latin American Antarctic science and, particularly, Chilean Antarctic science?

SC: The first thing to say is that I don’t understand the full scope and the reason I don’t is because I don’t read Spanish as well as I should. That’s always a lot of focus on the big journals like Nature and Science and so on, and that’s the right focus in the sense that they publish very contemporary work, leading edge work, but there’s huge amounts of science that come out in a range of journals. To fully understand that one has to actually be quite aware of what’s going on in those areas so I just qualify my comments to begin with on that basis.

What I’ve seen is tremendous development in terms of the extent and depth of science from the Latin American community and in particular I think Chile is really at the forefront of leading some of this, because if you look across the research that’s been done, it’s innovative but the institutional arrangements as we might call them that support the research are really innovative too, with the development of the new center [the International Antarctic Center to be built in Punta Arenas], the relationships between inach and the universities, the way in which the science is being driven from a peer review question basis and the way in which individual scientists are being held to very high quality standards, by the quality of the assessments they’ve been put in. So there is really interesting work coming out of Chile for example at least the small amount that I’m aware of – not reading the full literature – but what I know of, paleontological work, work on molecular biogeography, work on climate modeling, there’s really a tremendous range of science and I think it’s quite exciting in the sense that there’s just this whole new suite of people that one’s talking to, about science, as a country grows and lifts, so you just encounter the people more frequently, and many new ideas which are very exciting.

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What is Antarctic for you? What does Antarctic mean to you?

SC: It means several things to me and I think through this whole conversation one should also remember that there is a deep beauty to our natural world and it inspires a great deal of beautiful writing, beautiful art, imagery, and for me, that’s part of it, that inspirational aspect of the continent, and of course other areas too, but it is a very special place. Particularly in southern nations’ consciousness, because they are so close to the continent. Antarctica also represents to me the best of what can be done in science collaboration. You know there is science collaboration everywhere, in any field you look at, physics or chemistry. People collaborate. What I really like about the Antarctic is that collaboration has a genuinely warm spirit about it. A spirit that is based on excellence science and especially pronounced interdisciplinarity. I think that’s come about by the fact that people work together in isolated places, whether they are geochemists or biologists, or physicists. They’re really having to talk to each other. That makes it extremely special. And I think a place where others can learn sometimes about how to do transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary research. You often hear people saying it’s difficult. But you find, in like the Open Science Conference at scar, there doesn’t seem to be that much difficulty at all.