Living in two different cultures: Scientists and policymakers come together for evidence-based policy

By Tanja Kähkönen, University of Eastern Finland, School of Forest Sciences & Institute for Natural Resources, Environment and Society

This autumn I attended the first joint JRC-IIASA Summer School on Evidence and Policy, which brought together policymakers and early-career scientists like myself to learn about the evidence-policy interface. After intensive days of interacting at lectures, learning together, and sharing views during the breaks, I can really say that as scientists we are operating in a different culture to policymakers.


Discussion and debate fostering greater understanding between researchers and policymakers at the JRC-IIASA summer school

This difference extends not only to what we do in our daily work, but also to what kind of language we use, how we communicate, and what level of certainty we give—or have to give—to the issues that we address. Often as scientists we are so intensively involved in our own work that we forget that communicating our research to policymakers cannot be done in the same way as communication with other researchers. This is because policymakers have different evidence needs, expected timeframes for information production, and level of discipline-specific understanding.

However, despite the different cultures, it is possible to learn to speak each others’ language and communicate more efficiently. Developing this communication was practiced throughout the course and a significant part of this took place during “masterclasses,” given by people who are themselves at the science-policy interface as part of their daily work.

I found the masterclass session on wicked problems and evidence-based policy, run by Jan Staman and Annick de Vries from the Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands, particularly attention-grabbing. They pointed out that apart from crises, for which policymakers need rapid evidence on specific topics, wicked—difficult to solve—problems such as creating climate change policy may face problems of scientific evidence overload, political dead-locks, and societal controversies.

The masterclass on uncertainty, risk and hazard, and the links to policymaking was also particularly eye-opening. Session leaders David Wilkinson and Jutta Thielen of the JRC suggested that a range of scenarios and consequences should be offered to policymakers in order to allow them to take better decisions under uncertain conditions in which risks of human loss or health hazard maybe high.

Other sessions focused on foresight, effective communication, using games for informing public and policy debates (crowdsourcing our search for solutions), big data, randomization, modeling, and the pros and cons of working at the science-policy interface—all very important topics for improving communication between scientists and policymakers.

All in all, I guess the take home messages of this course are different for each participant. As a scientist, the big messages for me came from the wrap up session in which “dos and don’ts” for evidence-informed policymaking were summarized by all the summer school participants. For the “dos” words such as trust, communication, providing clear and concise messages, being certain about something, keeping it simple, and understanding policy processes leapt out at me.

Despite the fact that the summer school lasted only three days, I am positive that it will have a lasting effect on the participants, opening a path for cross-cultural understanding between scientists and policymakers. Together improving communication to the benefit of our changing society.


Participants of the first JRC-IIASA Summer School on Evidence and Policy

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Science for policy’s sake

By Daisy Brickhill, IIASA Science Writer and Editor

“In some senses, the science-policy process can be likened to a sausage being made,” said Dr E. William Colglazier in his lecture at IIASA this week. We could take this in different ways: that it is messy, perhaps, or that things get churned around or made to fit. But the most important parallel must surely be that if it is done right it can bring huge benefits. In this case not for your taste buds, but for humanity.


It’s a messy business, but it’s surely worth it if we get it right: comparing the science-into-policy process with the art of sausage making.

If anyone knows what the science-policy process is like, it is Colglazier. Soon after completing his PhD in theoretical physics in 1971 he became a fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science, providing advice for policymakers. He has been at the forefront of the science-policy interface ever since, and is perhaps best known for his role as the Science and Technology Adviser to the US Secretary of State from 2011 to 2014.

During his lecture Colglazier explored how scientists can best advise policymakers. “There’s an old joke: if a policymaker asks a scientist what time it is, the scientist will tell him how to build a watch.” To avoid this, Colglazier says, scientists need a fundamental understanding of both the needs and time frames of policy making.

The best way to achieve this is to engage. A scientific advisor is not a distant voice, hovering between knowledge and policy. Scientists must not be afraid to get involved; it is only through lots of interaction with policymakers that they will begin to understand what is needed. “Scientific advising,” says Colglazier, “is a contact sport.”

For their part, policymakers do not always understand the scientific process. To prevent this causing misunderstandings, scientists must be clear about the uncertainties in the science, and what it can and cannot say. They must explain exactly how the evidence leads to the recommendations they have given.

Colglazier also emphasized the importance of communication, something I silently cheered for, as a science writer often hoping to reach policymakers. “Telling a good story with persuasive anecdotes is often more influential than a dry, hundred-page report,” he said, and I couldn’t agree more. I have seen articles about accurate, rigorous, and important science drift by unnoticed where others, based on a more trivial studies, spark debate and engagement. The difference is often that those in the former category are three pages longer, full of impenetrable jargon, and bury their juicy conclusions at the bottom.


Dr E. William Colglazier giving his lecture at IIASA this week as part of the first joint JRC-IIASA summer school on evidence and policy.

Sometimes, scientists are asked to advise on issues that go beyond science, straying into value judgements. For example, when assessing an environmental risk a scientist can give the numbers and the uncertainties and information on the consequences. But they cannot provide a definitive answer to the question that the policymaker is really asking: how safe is safe enough?

Does that mean scientists should steer clear of this territory entirely? No, says Colglazier. “Feel free to give advice when you are asked, but be honest about what the science can say.” The important thing is to remember that scientists have no special expertise when dealing with value judgements.

Ultimately, the science-into-policy process is a messy one. Scientists find it difficult to grind up the prime fillet steak of their data into the mincemeat needed for policy making. But the importance of this step should not be underestimated. Science and policy must work together if we are to achieve a sustainable future for humanity.


Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Back to the future: using scenarios to road-test the policies of tomorrow

By Amanda Palazzo, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

If a company wants to build a car that is safe and reliable, they will test it in many ways. They will use wind tunnels and crash tests to identify potential weaknesses. Similarly, if policymakers want to develop the best policies possible, they need to know how they will look and succeed in several different, but realistic, possible futures. We call these futures, scenarios.

The CGIAR program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS) has developed and used scenarios to guide policy formulation in six global regions (Eastern and Western Africa, South and Southeast Asia, the Andes and Central America).

In July 2015, CCAFS facilitated a workshop with national partners from the government, private sector and civil society in Burkina Faso to review the development of National Plan for the Rural Sector (PNSR). They were joined by researchers from different CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) interested in evaluating their research objectives using previously developed regional scenarios.

In a workshop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in mid-July 2015, CGIAR researchers, government planners, private sector representatives and other national experts met to tackle this question. The goal: development of the new National Plan for the Rural Sector for Burkina Faso (PNSR) and the identification of research strategies to support this plan. The tool: scenario-guided planning. Photo: Kabore Herve.

In a workshop in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in mid-July 2015, CGIAR researchers, government planners, private sector representatives and other national experts met. The goal: development of the new National Plan for the Rural Sector for Burkina Faso (PNSR) and the identification of research strategies to support this plan. The tool: scenario-guided planning. Photo: Kabore Herve.

This workshop was part of a broader process, started by CCAFS in 2012 in the ECOWAS region, to bring together people who work on topics of food security, the environment, and rural livelihoods to create a platform for crafting futures for how their region could develop. Stakeholders envisioned many distinct, plausible futures that each offer a mix of opportunities and challenges against which to test policies.

In workshops held before the Burkina Faso workshop, stakeholders outlined four scenarios, along two axes of uncertainty:

  1. The degree to which states or non-state actors play the dominant role in the development of the region;
  2. The degree to which short-term or long-term priorities dominate strategic agendas.
Diagram showing four scenarios along two axes of uncertainty.

Four scenarios along two axes of uncertainty. Details>>

Agricultural development plays a leading role in all of these possible futures, because in many ECOWAS countries, including Burkina Faso, nearly a quarter of the national GDP comes from crop and livestock production. Reducing food insecurity is a challenge and understanding how improvements in crop production or livestock rearing will change the region’s demand for grassland and cropland is vital information. Yield improvements that increase the regional food supply and raise calorie consumption can be seen as a success. However, when the food supply increases through cutting down forests as a source for new agricultural land, this has long-term environmental consequences. It is important to identify such potential trade-offs.

We can use models, such as GLOBIOM and IMPACT, to tell the story of the scenarios and identify and measure trade-offs. Using our model, GLOBIOM, my IIASA colleagues and I provide insights into the development of the agriculture sector, improvements in food security, and the resulting land use change. Just as scenarios can gain credibility and become more relevant to the local realities by involving stakeholders at multiple levels, models can give credibility and consistency to the scenarios by using data and consistent representations of different systems (such as agricultural systems, for example, see this IIASA research).  To model these scenarios, we used input from stakeholders and scenario storylines to identify multiple factors driving change in Western Africa and put numerical values to these drivers: GDP, population, improvement in crop and livestock yields, integration of regional markets, and limit to deforestation. For all the scenarios, we also consider the potential impacts on agriculture due to climate change. For some of the factors of change we used Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), developed partly by IIASA researchers, as an envelope of possibilities for future changes, because the SSPs are also socioeconomic scenarios that have considered many dimensions of change to look at the challenges the world may face in mitigating and adapting to a changing climate.

GLOBIOM, as a global model, covers future development not only for the ECOWAS region but also for the rest of the word, providing insights to how the region will be affected by forces outside its control, such as global markets and climate change, which can have profound effects on regional outcomes. We like to call this “globally consistent regional scenarios”.

After running the model we examined the results, such as agricultural area expansion and food availability, through the lens of the scenario narratives. Once the scenarios from our model results represent the future worlds the stakeholders envision we use the full scenarios (narratives and quantitative model results) with policymakers as a testing ground for potential policies, such as those used in the Burkina Faso workshop. Presenting modeling results can be challenging, but we have found ways to present engaging and informative quantitative scenarios, by focusing on the most useful information policymakers want to see for each scenario: regional socioeconomic growth and food security, development of crop and livestock sector under climate change, and changes in land use and deforestation. With successes like the workshop in Burkina Faso, where our scenarios, developed by local stakeholders and quantified by models, were well-received and useful for redeveloping the country’s PNSR as well as regional research objectives of the CGIAR, we see an example of how the IIASA goal of moving science into policy is being achieved.


Havlík, Petr, Hugo Valin, Mario Herrero, Michael Obersteiner, Erwin Schmid, Mariana C Rufino, Aline Mosnier, et al. 2014. “Climate Change Mitigation through Livestock System Transitions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111 (10) (March 11): 3709–14. doi:10.1073/pnas.1308044111.

Leclère, D, P Havlík, S Fuss, E Schmid, A Mosnier, B Walsh, H Valin, M Herrero, N Khabarov, and M Obersteiner. 2014. “Climate Change Induced Transformations of Agricultural Systems: Insights from a Global Model.” Environmental Research Letters 9 (12) (December 1): 124018. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/9/12/124018.

Müller, Christoph, and Richard D. Robertson. 2014. “Projecting Future Crop Productivity for Global Economic Modeling.” Agricultural Economics 45 (1) (January 10): 37–50. doi:10.1111/agec.12088.

Palazzo, Amanda, Joost Vervoort, Petr Havlik, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, and S Islam. 2014. “Simulating Stakeholder-Driven Food and Climate Scenarios for Policy Development in Africa, Asia and Latin America: A Multi-Regional Synthesis.” Copenhagen, Denmark.

Rosegrant, Mark W, and IMPACT development Team. 2012. “International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) Model Description.”

Vervoort, J.M., A. Palazzo, D. Mason-D’Croz, P.J. Ericksen, P.K. Thornton, P. Kristjanson, W. Förch, et al. 2013. “The Future of Food Security, Environments and Livelihoods in Eastern Africa: Four Socio-Economic Scenarios.” 63.

Vervoort, Joost M., Philip K. Thornton, Patti Kristjanson, Wiebke Förch, Polly J. Ericksen, Kasper Kok, John S.I. Ingram, et al. 2014. “Challenges to Scenario-Guided Adaptive Action on Food Security under Climate Change.” Global Environmental Change 28 (March): 383–394. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.03.001.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Accounting for land use in EU climate policy

By Hannes Böttcher, Senior Researcher, Öko-Institut, previously in IIASA’s Ecosystem Services and Management Program

In or out?  Debit or credit? The role of the land use sector in the EU climate policy still needs to be defined

The EU has a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. This is an economy-wide target and therefore includes the land use sector, which includes land use, land use change and forestry. The EU is currently in the process of deciding how to integrate land use into this target. This is not an easy task, as we show in a new study.

© Souvenirpixels |

Land use includes activities, such as logging, that can release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But the sector also includes other processes that can remove greenhouse gases from the  atmosphere. Accounting for these processes is a complicated task. © Souvenirpixels |

The land use sector has several particularities that make it different from other sectors already included in the target, such as energy, industrial processes, waste, and agriculture. The most specific particularity is that the sector includes activities that cause emissions but also can lead to carbon being removed from that atmosphere, and taken up and stored in vegetation and soil. However, this removal is not permanent. Harvesting trees, and burning wood releases the carbon much more quickly than it was stored. Another particularity is that not all emissions and removals are directly caused by humans. This is especially true for removals from forest management.

In the past, the EU reported that uptake and storing of carbon through land use activities was higher than emissions from this sector. The European land use sector thus acted as a relatively stable net sink of emissions at around -300 to -350 Megatons (Mt) CO2 per year. But this might change in the near future: projections show the net sink declining to only 279 Mt CO2 in 2030.

Adding up carbon credits and debits
The emissions and removals that are actually occurring in the atmosphere are not exactly those that are currently accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol. Rather complicated rules exist that define what can be counted as credits and debits. Depending on how these rules develop, the EU sink may be accounted for to a large degree as a credit, or it could turn into a debit because the sink is getting smaller compared to the past. It is not likely that the entire sink will be turned into credits. Especially for the management of existing forests, which contributes a lot to the net sink, negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol have developed special accounting rules for the time before 2020. Under these rules, carbon credits only count if measured against a baseline.

The rules for the time after 2020 have not yet been agreed, however, as the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2020. In order to assess the impact of including the land use sector in the EU target in our new study, we had to make different assumptions, for example about how much wood we will harvest, the development of emissions and removals, and what the baseline for forest management should be. We then applied the existing Kyoto rules and alternative rules and assessed their impact on the level of ambition required to meet the EU’s target. It quickly became obvious: the assumptions we make and the rules we apply have very large implications for the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework.

One option of including land use discussed by the Commission is to take agriculture emissions out of the currently existing framework of the so-called ESD (an already existing mechanism to distribute mitigation efforts among EU Member States for specific sectors such as transport, buildings, waste and agriculture) and merge it with land use activities in a separate pillar. In our study we estimated the net credits that the land use sector could potentially generate, and found these credits could be as high as the entire emission reduction effort needed in agriculture. This would mean that in agriculture no reductions would be needed if the credits from land use were exchangeable between the sectors.

The impact on thannes-fighe target of 40% emissions reductions can be more than 4 percentage points if land use is included and the rules are not changed. This means that the original 40% target without land use would be reduced to an only 35% target. Other sectors would have to reduce their emissions less because land use seems to do part of the job. The target as a whole would thus become much less ambitious than it currently is. But this does not need to be the case. If accounting rules are changed in a way to account for the fact that the sink is getting smaller and smaller, land use would create debits. Including debits in the target would make it a 41% target instead and increase the overall level of ambition. This would be bad for the atmosphere because effectively emissions would not be reduced as much as needed.

It thus all depends on assumptions and rules. Before the rules are announced, the contribution of the land use sector cannot be quantified. Given this, we argue that the best option would be to keep land use separate from other sectors, give it separate target and design accounting rules that set incentives to increase the sink.

Böttcher H, Graichen J. 2015. Impacts on the EU 2030 climate target of inlcuding LULUCF in the climate and energy policy framework. Report prepared for Fern and IFOAM. Oeko-Institut.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Would addressing climate change improve energy security?

By Jessica Jewell, Research Scholar, IIASA Energy Program

How would action to mitigate climate change affect energy security for countries around the world? In two recent studies that I worked on with colleagues in IIASA’s Energy Program and three other European research centers, we explored this question under a range of different policy scenarios. We found that in the long term – 40 to 90 years from now – climate policies would actually benefit energy security. Our studies showed that policies to limit climate change would lead to lower oil and gas trade. Since both of these fuels are supplied by only a few countries, shifting to other fuels could alleviate concerns for countries which import these energy sources. Our research also shows that a climate-friendly energy system would be more resilient to energy supply and price shocks as well as economic and fossil resource uncertainty.

An oil rig off the coast of California. New research shows that transitioning away from fossil fuels would be good for long-term energy security. Credit: Arby Reed via Flickr: Creative Commons License

An oil rig off the coast of California. New research shows that transitioning away from fossil fuels would be good for long-term energy security. Credit: Arby Reed via Flickr: Creative Commons License

Taking action to slow climate change requires a massive change in how our society supplies and uses energy. But achieving a low-carbon energy system – one which releases less greenhouse gases – will only be possible if it doesn’t compromise national energy priorities. One of the main energy priorities for decision-makers is ensuring energy security – that is, the stability and resilience of energy supply and infrastructures.

In our studies, published in Energy Policy and Climatic Change we aimed to figure out whether phasing out fossil fuels would alleviate energy dependence concerns or if decarbonization would simply replace existing vulnerabilities with new ones. Intuitively, addressing climate change would mean increasing renewables and would clearly lead to lower energy dependence. After all, Putin doesn’t own the wind. But would climate policies lead to some unintended consequences? Would oil be phased out only to be replaced with biofuels and Brazil as the new fuel-exporting superpower? And what would happen without climate policies? Would energy trade naturally decline as oil and gas reserves are used up or would it continue to increase?

In our research we used a number of energy scenarios which depict:

  • a world with an energy system which continues to develop in the same way it has developed over the last 50 years (i.e. business as usual)
  • a world which implements ambitious policies to mitigate climate change and stabilize the climate at 2°C above pre-industrial levels (i.e. climate scenarios).

We looked at each type of world under a range of different policy choices: for example, phasing out nuclear energy or limiting the penetration of solar and wind energy, and including uncertainties such as different growth rates and fossil fuel availability over the long term.

We found that under a business as usual scenario global trade in oil, gas, and coal quadruples. Under a range of different climate-friendly scenarios, trade stabilizes at between half and twice the current level by 2030 and then falls throughout the rest of the century.

Falling trade would have significant implications for the interconnectedness of different world regions. In a business as usual scenario, the energy systems of all world regions remain interconnected, and becomes even more so. But under climate policies, regional energy systems diverge as each region gravitates to its own energy mix. This could decrease states’ investment in existing energy institutions and lead to a massive upheaval in the global energy governance landscape – thus rendering existing institutions obsolete.

Climate policies would affect not only the volume of energy trade but also how and where energy is exported and imported. Today, oil accounts for over 90% of transport demand and there are no real substitutes for fuel cars, trains and planes. Half of all countries in the world import more than 75% of their oil from only a few number of countries. That makes oil the most problematic fuel for energy security (for more on this see the Global Energy Assessment). Under the business-as-usual scenarios, these dynamics get worse over the next few decades.. However, under de-carbonization oil is phased out and no other fuel takes on similarly problematic dynamics.

It’s important to note though that over the short-term, climate policies could make oil even more of a problem: as cheap unconventional resources rise in price due to their carbon intensity, the geographical concentration of oil production would actually rise.

However, over the medium and long-term (three to four decades), climate action would make the energy system much more resilient compared to the business-as-usual case. Resilience, or the capacity for energy systems to respond to disruptions is just as important as avoiding risks such as decreasing energy dependence. Under climate scenarios, the diversity of energy options rises which means all our “energy eggs” would be distributed between different baskets. In addition, the energy system would become less sensitive to fluctuations in GDP, fossil resource assumptions, and energy intensity. This means that a low-carbon energy system would be less exposed to both price and supply shocks.



Jessica Jewell, Aleh Cherp, Keywan Riahi. (2014). Energy security under de-carbonization scenarios: An assessment framework and evaluation under different technology and policy choices. Energy PolicyVolume 65, February 2014, Pages 743–760

Aleh Cherp, Jessica Jewell, Vadim Vinichenko, Nico Bauer, Enrica De Cian. (2013). Global energy security under different climate policies, GDP growth rates and fossil resource availabilities. Climatic Change. November 2013.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Uncertainty in an emissions-constrained world

By Matthias Jonas, IIASA, and  Gregg Marland, Appalachian State University

Greenhouse gas emissions are seldom measured directly. They must be estimated from data such as on energy use and changes in land use. That means that estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from human sources are inherently uncertain.

This image of Central and Eastern Europe at night was taken from the NASA, International Space Station in 2011. Image Credit: NASA

Uncertainty around emissions may mean that reaching temperature targets would require greater cuts than previously thought. Central and Eastern Europe at night, taken from the NASA, International Space Station in 2011. Image Credit: NASA

In a new study with colleagues at IIASA and the Polish Academy of Sciences, we asked how uncertainty over time will affect short-term GHG emission commitments and long-term efforts to meet global temperature targets for 2050 and beyond. The new study addresses a fundamental problem: how to combine uncertainty about current and historic emissions (diagnostic uncertainty) with uncertainty about projected future emissions (prognostic uncertainty).

The paper introduces a concept we call the Emissions, Temperature, Uncertainty (ETU) framework.The ETU framework allows any country to understand its national and near-term mitigation and adaptation efforts in a more realistic context, where uncertainty is taken into account.

The ETU assumes that cumulative emissions can be constrained over time by international agreements that are binding, but that emissions can be estimated only imprecisely, and whether or not they will achieve an agreed temperature target  is also uncertain. The ETU framework allows policymakers to understand diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty so that they can make more educated (precautionary) decisions for reducing emissions given an agreed future temperature target.

Diagnostic uncertainty refers to the uncertainty contained in current inventoried emission estimates and relates to the risk that true greenhouse gas emissions are greater than inventoried emission estimates. Prognostic uncertainty refers to cumulative emissions between a start year and a future target year and the global average temperature increase they would generate. It relates to the risk that an agreed temperature target is exceeded. In a nutshell, the ETU framework can be used to monitor a country’s performance – that is, past achievements as well as projected achievements – in complying with a future warming target in a quantified uncertainty-risk context.

While our study addresses whether or not the future increase in global temperature can be kept below 2, 3, or 4ºC targets, its primary aim is to use those targets to demonstrate the relevance of both diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty.   The paper shows:

  • Uncertainty is important in emissions: Both diagnostic and prognostic uncertainty need to be considered to facilitate better decisions on reducing emissions, given an agreed future temperature target.
  • What these risks mean for emissions targets: We find, for example, that to nullify the diagnostic uncertainty-related risk, and to maintain a similar level of risk for exceeding a 2o target, the universally valid per-capita emissions target for 2050 resulting from the underlying cumulative emissions constraint needs to be shifted downward by nearly 10%.
  • Risk and uncertainty are interdependent: This interdependence poses a challenge for decision-makers because they have to deal with uncertainty and risk simultaneously.
  • Including land-use change is tricky: Determining cumulative emissions from land use and land-use change in this emission-temperature setting is difficult, because an achievable future state of sustainability for the terrestrial biosphere has not yet been defined.

Matthias Jonas, Gregg Marland, Volker Krey, Fabian Wagner, Zbigniew Nahorski (2014).  Uncertainty in an emissions-constrained world. Climatic Change. April 2014.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.