Began his career in Arctic affairs in China
Egill Þór Níelsson works at Rannís as a senior advisor in research and innovation and leads projects related to the EEA Grants and Arctic cooperation. He is from Akureyri but lived in Europe while pursuing his education and later moved to China to work on Arctic issues. Egill states that the cooperation between China and Iceland regarding Arctic affairs was a topic of discussion when he moved to Shanghai, and he found it fitting to seize the opportunity to work on Arctic matters.
The interest awoke in China
In 2011, Egill moved to China when he was completing his second master's degree. "I needed to find something useful and interesting to do, so I started exploring Iceland-China relations. Then it became apparent that the first Chinese Arctic expeditionary delegation was going to visit Iceland in August 2011 to discuss potential cooperation, including the establishment of a China-Icelandic/Nordic Arctic centre (later established as CNARC) for social science cooperation and a joint China-Icelandic Arctic Observatory (later CIAO) for aurora research and more. I proposed a project related to economic and social development in the Arctic, which fit into a larger project being undertaken by the Polar Research Institute of China (PRIC). I was appointed as a visiting scholar at PRIC for six months, which later extended. I stayed there for eight years, including five years as the executive secretary of the China-Nordic Arctic Research Center (CNARC)," says Egill.
Arctic affairs have a great significance for Iceland
Egill mentions that he has always been aware of these issues, especially as a native of Akureyri. "My interest grew when I started to explore the diverse and fascinating issues related to the Arctic and their significant importance for Iceland's international cooperation. It is also a platform where we have a lot to offer, and many stakeholders want to collaborate with us. Being present in the region and having expertise in the field is crucial. Alongside geothermal energy and fisheries, it seemed that the most interesting field for potential Chinese partners to look into was economic and social development in the Arctic, where Iceland has a leading role," says Egill.
Sailed with the Snow Dragon
In 2012, the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon embarked on a research expedition along the Northeast Passage through the Arctic Ocean, passing Russia and Norway. It made a port call in Iceland, and Egill was one of the two Icelanders on board. On the return journey from Iceland to China through the Central Arctic Route, Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir, a marine scientist, was on board. Egill describes the expedition as a remarkable experience and one of the highlights of his time in China. It was the first Chinese Arctic expedition, and among other things, they examined the impacts of climate change on sea ice. The voyage to Iceland took seven weeks, and there were 120 participants, including scientists and other expedition members. The Snow Dragon concluded its journey in Iceland and was welcomed in the harbours of Reykjavík and Akureyri, where the public had the opportunity to visit the ship. This expedition reflects the cooperation between the countries on Arctic matters, and during the voyage, Egill, along with others, was involved in drafting statements of intent towards the Sino-Nordic Center and the research station at Kárhóll in Reykjadalur. "There were conferences and meetings surrounding this visit, which I was involved in organizing in collaboration with Rannís and under the guidance of my predecessor, Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, who played a key role, along with the Arctic Affairs Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Office of the President. But the voyage, seeing this region and experiencing being on board with nearly 120 Chinese scientists and expedition members and one French master's student, was a great adventure," says Egill and laughs.
Studying for a doctorate in international relations and history
Egill holds master's degrees in anthropology and international business. Currently, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations at the University of Lapland and history at the University of Iceland. His doctoral research focuses on China-Nordic cooperation on Arctic issues in the 21st century when the activity has been at its highest. "I have been working on my dissertation based on my previous experience and putting it into a theoretical context. It's a collection of articles, and three out of four have already been published," he says.
Leading Rannís’ Arctic affairs related projects
After spending eight years at the Polar Research Institute of China, Egill moved back to Iceland. "I decided to return to be closer to friends and family. I had been away for about ten years, living in Shanghai, Paris, and London, and I missed being in Iceland to some extent," says Egill.
He joined Rannís in 2019 and currently holds a position as an expert in research and innovation. Egill describes his work at Rannís as diverse. He is involved in projects related to the Arctic, including support for the Research and Innovation Program of the European Union (Horizon Europe), which has been the largest source of funding for Arctic research in Iceland in the past decade. Egill also represents Iceland in the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), which has its office hosted by Rannís in Akureyri. In addition, he serves on the executive board of the European Polar Board, represents Iceland on the Northern Research Forum, and participates in the Cooperation Committee on Arctic Affairs. "These are various platforms coming together, and not all of them are listed here," says Egill.
"My interest grew when I started to explore the diverse and fascinating issues related to the Arctic and their significant importance for Iceland's international cooperation."