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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


July-August 2016

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Gaps in Scientific Knowledge Often Stem From a Failure to Ask

“I wish you had asked me first.” Often we say these words after someone has acted on incomplete information—knowledge that we could have provided if only the other person had thought to ask. In Arctic science and conservation, the same principle applies. Making isolated or hard-to-access information available can provide learning opportunities, but obstacles to acquiring knowledge are often a hindrance to clear understanding, sound decisions, and responsible action.

Sometimes specialists lack the full context needed to understand what is happening. In 2011, wildlife biologists and veterinarians were puzzled by the skin lesions and bald patches they and hunters were seeing on seals in northern Alaska. One big question was whether the affliction was a new phenomenon. The scientists expected that indigenous hunters, with decades of experience plus knowledge passed down from parents and grandparents, would know the answer. The challenge was connecting the scientists and the hunters. That took time, but eventually the groups shared information, and the hunters told the scientists that the bald patches are seen from time to time, but the lesions were new.       

Henry P. Huntington is a senior officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts, where he directs the science work of its Arctic programs.       

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