New book by O’Reilly examines “technocratic” work of Antarctic environmental scientists and policymakers

Feb. 6, 2017

The work of how environmental policies and practices come to be is partly a story of what happens out in the world’s environment and partly what happens in the environment of policymaking itself. For that reason, a new book by Jessica O’Reilly, assistant professor of international studies at the IU School of Global and International Studies, provides stories from deep in the snow and equally deep in the policy mechanisms that help shape global environmental rulemaking.

O’Reilly’s book is “The Technocratic Antarctic:  an Ethnography of Scientific Expertise and Environmental Governance,” built on three years of research that included a year and a half in the field. During a portion of that time, she lived with scientists conducting research in an expedition at Windless Bight, Antarctica.

In part, it’s a tale of the difficulties of day-to-day existence in such a place, an ice plain located at the northwest edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, the Antarctic’s largest ice shelf. “I lived in a tent in the snow and did scientific research with my colleagues, so the day-to-day life is like camping,” she said. “For anyone who’s done snow camping, you know that it takes a long time getting dressed. Everything was just slow.”

After the couple hours spent putting on the necessary layers, O’Reilly said a good portion of her time in the camps was spent digging holes. It was a necessity just to get away from cold wind, to build a place for outdoor kitchens, and for toilets. “We would dig down and build bricks,” she said. “It was really fun.”

Over the last dozen years, O’Reilly’s worked with Antarctic scientists to get more insight into their world. For this book she was with a group of scientists from New Zealand. “We were doing environmental monitoring projects, some climate-related and some not,” she said. “We did a seal census and some ice sheet work, but it was really monitoring research.”

But for a full story of how the science informs policy—and what science informs policy—O’Reilly spent a lot of time away from where the data is gathered, going to where the data is shared. She traveled to science conferences, workshop, and meetings of the International Antarctic Treaty to see how the work translated into policy. O’Reilly said that information helped complete the picture—and made it the technocratic Antarctic.

“This book is about the governance of Antarctica and what people’s everyday lives are like there,” she said (the people she referred to are the scientists; no permanent population lives in that area). “They’re scientists and they’re following all these bureaucratic rules—all these people who work at the bases. So it’s really technocratic—sort of this fusion of governance and expertise.”

Through her work as an anthropologist, she observed how the scientists worked in their camps and how they worked in their meetings. “I was trying to help, as a novice, as a way of learning about how science is done in Antarctica, and then I did a lot of participant observation at policy meetings like the Antarctic Treaty meetings,” O’Reilly said. “I was really focusing on how the practice of science in the Antarctic field translates into international policy.”

What she learned is that the ideal of what research gets heard isn’t necessarily the reality of what occurs, a finding she said wasn’t surprising. For instance, as O’Reilly recounts in the book, New Zealand’s strict biosecurity policies that govern entry of samples into the country are more easily overcome by scientists with a higher status and connections. On the international policy level, where she found what she called “an entire apparatus of Antarctic science organizing,” policy pushes were either effective or not based sometimes on how well the scientists were able to personally sell their findings.

“Sometimes it’s just due to personality that someone gets heard, but other times it’s because people are able to articulate their research in a network of knowledge that can make sense to a broader audience,” O’Reilly said.

Overall, O’Reilly found that the scientists were overwhelmingly careful about their work and most shared a characteristic trait.

“Scientists are fundamentally conservative,” she said. “And not to say politically conservative, but about the practice of science and the scientific method and being able to replicate results. They are really the opposite of how they are sometimes portrayed; they’re very careful, very reticent to the point that they’re not going to make a proclamation, a strong statement, until they feel really, really confident in the results.”

In a time when scientific discovery, particularly in the area of environmental research, is under more scrutiny, O’Reilly said the book has importance in shedding light on how knowledge fits into policy choices. “That leads us to the question about science studies:  what is a fact and how do these facts come into the world?” she said. “That’s the question:  how do scientists represent nature? I hope that this book really underscores the valuable contribution that these people are making with their careers.”