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Polar Bear Researchers: Are They Protecting The Bears Or Their Own Jobs?

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Susan Crockford, Polar Bear Science

Are polar bear biologists who proclaim their heartfelt fear for the future of polar bears behaving as advocates for polar bears or protecting their own careers?

Poor polar bear researchers: there are few full time jobs worldwide and research is underfunded.

This is not my opinion but the facts according to Andrew Derocher and Ian Stirling (2011) — see Fig. 1 and 2 below. I do not dispute them.

Figure 1. The distribution of full-time polar bear researchers worldwide. Graduate students carry out much of the field work, funded by research grants – but eventually, they are going to want full-time jobs too. Where will the money come from? From Derocher and Stirling 2011. Slide 8 from “Conservation status, monitoring, and information gaps.” Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, USA contingent. Oct 24-26, 2011.

Figure 1. The distribution of full-time polar bear researchers worldwide. From Derocher and Stirling 2011, invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, Oct 24-26.

Figure 2. The sad state of polar bear research. From Derocher and Stirling 2011. Slide from “Conservation status, monitoring, and information gaps.” Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, USA contingent. Oct 24-26, 2011.

Figure 2. The sad state of polar bear research. From Derocher and Stirling 2011, Invited speaker presentation to the 2011 Polar Bear Meeting in Nunavut, Oct 24-26.

Since Derocher and Stirling have raised the issue, I contend it’s perfectly valid to ask: are polar bear biologists who proclaim their heartfelt fear for the future of polar bears at every opportunity behaving as advocates for polar bears or protecting their own careers?

What Derocher and Stirling don’t say in their polar bear employment summary is that virtually all of those permanent jobs are government gigs, with paycheques coming out of national or regional coffers.

In the USA, government employers are US Geological Survey (USGS) and US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS); in Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Government of Nunavut; in Norway, Norwegian Polar Institute and National Environmental Research Institute; in Denmark/Greenland, Department of Arctic Environment and Greenland Institute of Natural Resources; and inRussia, All-Russian Research Institute for Nature Conservation and Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve (Obbard et al. 2010).

A few polar bear biologists hold university positions (like Andrew Derocher, University of Alberta, Edmonton and Gregory Thiemann, York University, Toronto) or museum jobs (like Øystein Wiig, Natural History Museum, Oslo), which are also largely funded by governments.

These government jobs allow the biologists to plan their research and write reports and papers for academic journals. But the money for fieldwork each year comes largely from outside grants funded by governments, like the National Science Foundation (USA) or National Science and Engineering Research Council (Canada), to which all scientists in the country must apply (and usually run for 3-5 years).

But doing fieldwork with such large carnivores requires many bodies on the ground. Much of the physical work on polar bears is carried out by graduate students funded from research grants awarded to those with permanent jobs. Most government employees also do collaborative research with university professors and some, like Ian Stirling did before he retired, have university affiliations and a government job.

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