How science informs and shapes Antarctic policy

A black-browed albatross with its chick.
Antarctic science has informed policy decisions that help protect Macquarie Islandís black-browed albatross (pictured) and other albatross and petrel species, through the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. (Photo: Kim Kliska)

Antarctic scientists work on a range of research topics, but for scientists at the Australian Antarctic Division, issues that inform national and international policy are usually the highest priority.

In this context, policy can mean guidelines or rules about the way Antarctica is managed or international decision-making on global issues such as climate change. At the top of the Antarctic policy tree is the Antarctic Treaty and the related international agreements that constitute the Antarctic Treaty system. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 to ensure “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, was signed in 1991 and came into force in 1998. The Protocol provides unparalleled environmental protection for the entire Antarctic continent, and clear guidance on the important values that are to be conserved and protected.

The Protocol established the Committee on Environmental Protection (CEP) to support all countries to protect the Antarctic environment. The CEP is an important avenue for scientists to inform international discussions and decisions about the way the environment is managed. In recent years, Australian scientists, working with their counterparts in policy, have used their research to facilitate significant policy changes. Examples of this science include a better understanding of:

  • the pathways and type of alien species introductions;
  • the distribution of biodiversity in terrestrial Antarctica; and
  • how to remediate contaminated soils in Antarctica.

The flow-on effects of this research are broad-reaching and include improvements in biosecurity practices (Australian Antarctic Magazine 14: 28, 2008), a better foundation for protecting distinct biogeographic regions (Australian Antarctic Magazine 23, 19, 2012), and the ability to clean up the environmental impacts of human activities.

Scientists also support Australia’s engagement in other international bodies that require high-quality science to shape policy, such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. Science has informed decision-making and policy changes in both cases. Examples include better ways of assessing fisheries sustainability, improved understanding of the impacts of fishing on the broader ecosystem, and improvements in fishing techniques to reduce the bycatch of seabirds (Australian Antarctic Magazine 27: 14-15, 2014). Australian Antarctic scientists also contribute directly and indirectly to climate change policy, through research papers and input into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

Science can also facilitate change at more local levels, helping to ensure an environmentally responsible approach to the management of Australian activities in Antarctica. Australian Antarctic Division scientists are often involved in supporting policy development on issues such as the human footprint in Antarctica, minimising wildlife disturbance, and monitoring and evaluating changes in the Antarctic environment.

So what helps a successful transition from science to policy? Clear and regular communication between scientists and policy-makers is fundamental. If scientists understand what the policy priorities are (both at international and national levels), they will be better placed to target their research accordingly. Presenting research results in a way that is accessible to policy-makers is also important. The results of multinational research collaborations can often be influential in international policy forums like the CEP and CCAMLR, and expanded collaborations have the added benefit of helping to disseminate the research more broadly. International and rigorous peer-review of research, for example, like that associated with publication in scientific journals, also helps to reassure policy-makers that the research is a robust and unbiased resource to inform their decisions and/or change policy.

In all the examples outlined here, science has been used to improve policy and achieve better environmental outcomes for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Aleks Terauds
Section Head 
 Biodiversity Conservation, Australian Antarctic Division
Chief Officer – SCAR Standing Committee on the Antarctic Treaty System