Recruitment of a new generation of polar researchers

Science and society

Fridtjof Nansen led the Fram expedition into the unknown Arctic while in his early thirties. Several of his fellow explorers were even younger. Now a new cadre of young scientists stand poised to probe the secrets of a changing Arctic and launch their research careers with the Nansen Legacy project.

By: Marit Reigstad and Lena Seuthe // UiT The Arctic University of Norway. Sebastian Gerland // Norwegian Polar Institute. Tor Eldevik // University of Bergen/Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.

There is a need for new competence to meet the changing Arctic. The rapidly changing climate results in complex interactions between the physical and biological spheres, involving both small- and large-scale processes. While these interactions are cross-disciplinary, science and education are to a large degree disciplinary. To meet this challenge, the Nansen Legacy project (see fact box) has to date recruited 71 motivated and highly competent early career scientists from all over the world.

They have been welcomed into the exciting interdisciplinary research environment of modern-day Arctic exploration, involving common research themes, coordinated field work and collaborative opportunities with more than 100 senior scientists.

A giant research project like the Nansen Legacy builds bridges between institutions, disciplines, and generations to encourage development of new competence that improves understanding of the complex systems and interactions in the Arctic. Examples are interactions between large scale ocean currents and wind that form open water areas and sea ice distribution in the Barents Sea, with impacts on small-scale mixing, the Barents Sea food webs and the Arctic Ocean climate.

The students share experience and research across disciplines and institutional homes within the Nansen Legacy Recruitment Forum and dedicated PhD courses. The Recruit Forum prior to the Nansen Legacy meeting in 2019 (picture) has grown substantially in 2020.
Photo: Inger Lise Næss / UNIS, Nansen Legacy

Internationalisation at home

The early career scientists are diverse with respect to career level and nationalities, as well as institutional and disciplinary homes. They represent different career stages, with 28 PhD students and 43 postdoctoral scientists. While most of this group is funded by the Nansen Legacy, a growing group of (currently) 15 young scientists are affiliated with the project, and expand the expertise and research capacity. They work with samples or data obtained through the Nansen Legacy to complement the planned research at Nansen Legacy partners or collaborating institutions. Several master’s students are also being educated as part of the project.

The international component among the early career scientists is strong, with 22 different nationalities recruited from 18 different countries.

The research fields and institutions of the Nansen Legacy, generally well-known for their in-depth competence and involvement in understanding a changing Arctic environment, attract promising young scientists from abroad, but also highly motivated Norwegian candidates. We note that Norwegian citizens are generally recruited from Norwegian institutions, implying that Norwegians still tend to build their careers in Norway.

However, half of the recruits from Norwegian institutions are not Norwegian citizens. This emphasises the general point that establishing a research career in Norway within these fields is attractive from an international point of view. Moreover, the large influx of competitive international candidates directly to the Nansen Legacy project, suggests that a concerted and highly visible effort like this one is attractive in the international research landscape. Internationalisation is increasing at home.

Interdisciplinary training

It is not necessarily enough to bring people from different disciplines together in a research project. Strengthening interdisciplinarity requires that they do connected research on drivers and processes across disciplines to build a holistic understanding, and learn the “languages” the different disciplines use. In the Nansen Legacy Recruit forum, early career scientists have come together to present and discuss their research and to build networks.

A second approach has been interdisciplinary courses around Arctic Ocean functioning and biogeochemical cycling. These topics involve broad temporal and spatial scales, as well as an earth system science perspective that requires that the researchers involved understand more than one science discipline. These courses have challenged both the students and the lecturers to place their own research in a broader context. Joint field work is a third approach that strengthens interdisciplinarity.

Webinars on Arctic marine system features can also connect disciplines. One such feature is leads (openings) in the sea ice, which are caused by sea ice dynamics and are now increasing due to a thinner and more fragmented and dynamic sea ice cover.

Leads are identified by direct observations during scientific expeditions, but also by satellite and airborne remote sensing, and by advanced models. They represent an “open door” for energy, gas exchange, and for light, during a period of the year when the ocean used to be isolated from the atmosphere with snow and ice.

Lead processes impact weather, ocean acidification and algal growth. Joint webinars that engage scientists working on these many aspects of leads help build a common language and hence open for a common understanding of complex, interconnected processes across disciplines.

PhDs and post docs in the Nansen Legacy project are recruited from all over the world, and illustrate the international dimension of science education, also among polar scientists. The figure illustrates their nationality, and from what country they were recruited to a position in the Nansen Legacy.

Communication opens for connections

Fridtjof Nansen was an excellent communicator, reaching scientists across disciplines, as well as politicians and the general public. Communication is among the skills a new generation of polar researchers must have. They must also build competence on visual presentations, become proficient at explaining complex research to colleagues outside their own discipline – orally and in writing. Not least, they need social media skills so they can communicate science not only to fellow scientists, but also to the general public, to policymakers and other stakeholders.


Our ambition is literally to make sense as scientists. The Nansen Legacy project is in essence an informed chain of events: promising young researchers are recruited to explore the Arctic and form a broad scientific understanding of cause and effect; this understanding is condensed to facilitate meaningful and engaging public interaction; and stakeholders then use the improved understanding for informed management of the region. No doubt Nansen himself would approve.

The Nansen Legacy

The Nansen Legacy is a collaborative project between ten Norwegian research institutions with arctic marine expertise, and with competence and perspectives including education, management and contact with different user groups.

  • Project period: 2018-2023
  • Budget: 740 million NOK
  • Funding: 50% in-kind from involved institutions, 25% from the Research Council of Norway, 25% from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research
  • Research group: More than 150 scientists from the involved institutions, about 70 recruitment positions (PhD and post docs), associated members, international collaborators

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