Interview: Living in the age of adaptation

Adil Najam is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and former vice chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan. He talks to Science Communication Fellow Parul Tewari about his time as a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and the global challenge of adaptation to climate change.  

How has your experience as a YSSP fellow at IIASA impacted your career?
The most important thing my YSSP experience gave me was a real and deep appreciation for interdisciplinarity. The realization that the great challenges of our time lie at the intersection of multiple disciplines. And without a real respect for multiple disciplines we will simply not be able to act effectively on them.

Prof. Adil Najam speaking at the Deutsche Welle Building in Bonn, Germany in 2010 © Erich Habich I en.wikipedia

Recently at the 40th anniversary of the YSSP program you spoke about ‘The age of adaptation’. Globally there is still a lot more focus on mitigation. Why is this?
Living in the “Age of Adaption” does not mean that mitigation is no longer important. It is as, and more, important than ever. But now, we also have to contend with adaptation. Adaptation, after all, is the failure of mitigation. We got to the age of adaptation because we failed to mitigate enough or in time. The less we mitigate now and in the future, the more we will have to adapt, possibly at levels where adaptation may no longer even be possible. Adaption is nearly always more difficult than mitigation; and will ultimately be far more expensive. And at some level it could become impossible.

How do you think can adaptation be brought into the mainstream in environmental/climate change discourse?
Climate discussions are primarily held in the language of carbon. However, adaptation requires us to think outside “carbon management.” The “currency” of adaptation is multivaried: its disease, its poverty, its food, its ecosystems, and maybe most importantly, its water. In fact, I have argued that water is to adaptation, what carbon is to mitigation.
To honestly think about adaptation we will have to confront the fact that adaptation is fundamentally about development. This is unfamiliar—and sometimes uncomfortable—territory for many climate analysts. I do not believe that there is any way that we can honestly deal with the issue of climate adaptation without putting development, especially including issues of climate justice, squarely at the center of the climate debate.

COP 22 (Conference of Parties) was termed as the “COP of Action” where “financing” was one of the critical aspects of both mitigation and adaptation. However, there has not been much progress. Why is this?
Unfortunately, the climate negotiation exercise has become routine. While there are occasional moments of excitement, such as at Paris, the general negotiation process has become entirely predictable, even boring. We come together every year to repeat the same arguments to the same people and then arrive at the same conclusions. We make the same promises each year, knowing that we have little or no intention of keeping them. Maybe I am being too cynical. But I am convinced that if there is to be any ‘action,’ it will come from outside the COPs. From citizen action. From business innovation. From municipalities. And most importantly from future generations who are now condemned to live with the consequences of our decision not to act in time.

© Piyaset I Shutterstock

What is your greatest fear for our planet, in the near future, if we remain as indecisive in the climate negotiations as we are today?
My biggest fear is that we will—or maybe already have—become parochial in our approach to this global challenge. That by choosing not to act in time or at the scale needed, we have condemned some of the poorest communities in the world—the already marginalized and vulnerable—to pay for the sins of our climatic excess. The fear used to be that those who have contributed the least to the problem will end up facing the worst climatic impacts. That, unfortunately, is now the reality.

What message would you like to give to the current generation of YSSPers?
Be bold in the questions you ask and the answers you seek. Never allow yourself—or anyone else—to rein in your intellectual ambition. Now is the time to think big. Because the challenges we face are gigantic.

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

Turning Vienna into a city of science

Known to the world as a metropolis of music the science in Vienna does not receive the recognition and international visibility its excellence deserves. To change this would require not so much more money but a new mindset, agree two prominent players in scientific research in Vienna: Director General and CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat and President of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) Dr. Thomas Henzinger.

How does Vienna and its scientific research community benefit from the presence of the two institutions and vice versa?

Henzinger:  Vienna is a hub for scientific research in Europe. There are a number of universities and institutions in Vienna and they all have an important part to play in the research ecosystem. In the end this profits everybody because as the critical mass of research grows the easier it is to hire people. It’s like gravity — big centers attract more of the best researchers from around the world. The Science Ball is a — uniquely Viennese — sign of this. We are now firmly “on the map”, and in Vienna you show that by hosting a ball!

Kabat:  I agree. IIASA has a number of fruitful connections with Viennese institutions. For example, IIASA and OäW have worked together to organize a series of public lectures and debates with prominent scientists for the Viennese academic and political community.  Our scientific collaborations with researchers in Vienna and Austria as a whole are also very strong, and have resulted in the publication of over 1050 scientific papers since 2008.

The Science Ball, bringing together Vienna’s diverse scientific community.

Vienna is known as the “City of Music” because of its musical legacy, but why is science not also an important part of the city’s image?

Kabat:  This is something close to my heart. IIASA is doing top-level science on transitions towards sustainability; the world is now at a cross-roads and we need to be taking steps in sectors from energy and water all the way to financial systems. Communicating this can be very difficult, so we are using new and unusual collaborations that are made possible by this fantastic Viennese environment. We are working with music, ballet, and the opera. We have partnered up with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, for example, and with dancers from the State Opera to communicate these complex concepts. Science and the arts both have a vital part to play in Vienna’s past and future. I dream of a scientific tour through Vienna featuring collaborations between theatres, museums, and scientific institutions.

Henzinger:  There is a lot of history between the golden age of science in Vienna and today, and I think there is a large amount of effort and also a lot of progress in reviving Vienna as a city for science. Science by its very nature is one of the most borderless activities of humanity there is and it can only thrive in a completely open environment. It is no surprise that the glory days of science in Vienna were when it was the hub of a multi-national empire. I think we can only get back to that by becoming much more open-minded and much more international as a country.

The city of Vienna is not legally responsible for science funding, but it is a central research hub and the biggest university city in central Europe. What can the city do to improve its image as a center of scientific excellence?

Kabat:  I think a change is needed in the portrayal of Vienna as a whole. There is promotion of music, dance, and the arts. All these are great, but institutions like IST Austria and IIASA should also be used to show that Vienna really is one of the major science hubs of Europe and the world. Emphasizing this would require very little investment but would benefit both Vienna and science in the city. All the components are here, what it needs is a coordinated effort and a vision.

Henzinger:  Vienna has an enormous advantage in that is known as a fantastic place to live. The city needs to actively attract not only world-class researchers but all kinds of science-related businesses and organizations. Vienna as a whole must make concerted effort to advertise itself as an attractive location for students, companies, and professionals from all over the world.

Students do not know that if they come to study at Vienna University, for example, they may also be able to benefit from collaborations with scientists working IIASA and IST Austria, who may be able to advise or even co-supervise them. This dynamic and varied environment is a key part of what Vienna can offer, not only the individual institutions. The ball is the perfect step in that direction. It is very clearly an effort that transcends any particular institution.

Kabat:  We should continue this talk, not just with the two of us but with all leaders of Viennese scientific institutions, and the mayor, to have a free and frank discussion. Science brings a huge amount to the city of Vienna and it should be recognized. The ball, as you say, is an excellent occasion to bring together Vienna’s vibrant scientific community and celebrate it!

Fulfilling the Enlightenment dream: Arts and science complementing each other

By Gloria Benedikt, IIASA Associate for Science and Arts

Gloria Benedikt speaks at

Gloria Benedikt speaks at “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Palais Niederoesterreich, March 2015. Photo: Matthias Silveri

“For the real human story, history must comprise both the biological and the cultural,” wrote biologist Edward O. Wilson in his 2014 book The Meaning of Human Existence. ”The convergence between those two great branches of learning (sciences and humanities) will matter hugely when enough people have thought its potential through”.

This elegantly summarizes why I find myself at IIASA. I’ve been splitting my life between the arts (working as a professional dancer) and academia (studying at Harvard University). Over time I started to make connections between seemingly opposing worlds: arts and science. Now my challenge as IIASA Associate for Science and Arts is to help bridge them.

Why is this important, and why now? Because the way the world is run assumes that human beings act rationally and that economic (material) well-being in itself is key in solving all major issues afflicting our world. We have focused on the biological and neglected the cultural; we assumed that satisfying basic needs to keep bodies functioning will keep people alive. In short, we looked at the body and overlooked the soul. Or as prominent Czech Economist Tomáš Sedláček framed it, “There were huge advances that were brought upon us thanks to science and also thanks to economics, but now I feel we are in a time where we see the limits of it. In the beginning, there was no analytics, just ethics. Today there is only analytics and no ethics.”

Gloria Benedikt (right) and Hussein Khadour (left) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

Gloria Benedikt (left) and Hussein Khadour (right) answer questions from young scientists at a dress rehearsal of their new performance, InDignity, at the Festspielhaus St. Poelten

There was a time when humanity was already closer in finding a balance between the two. It was called the Enlightenment. “The Enlightenment quest,” Wilson observed, “was driven by the belief that human beings can know all that needs to be known, and in knowing understand, and in understanding gain the power to choose more wisely than ever before.”

Then, for the next two centuries and to the present day, science and humanities went their own way. Complex reasons briefly summarized: albeit making good progress, scientists were nowhere close to meeting expectations and artists sought meaning in other more private venues.

Is there any value in resuming this quest of connecting arts and science now? Wilson argues that the answer is yes, “because enough is known today to make it more attainable than during its first flowering.” And yes, because the solutions of so many problems in modern life will depend on solutions for the clash of competing religions, the revival of moral reasoning and on adequate foundations of environmentalism.

So, how can this work in practice?

BenediktMiccolisAnEveningforHumanityPressPhoto

Gloria Benedikt and Mimmo Miccolis in GROWTH, Kennedy Center, Washington DC, July 2014 Photo: Morgan Marinoni

For starters we should be aware that there is a common foundation. Despite science and humanities being fundamentally different from each other in what they say and do, they are complementary to each other in origin, as they arise from the same creative process in the human brain. But there is more. “Good” science is  data driven. Scientists are trained to present their findings in a neutral way. A scientist appealing to emotion is likely to be considered unprofessional.

Meanwhile, artists are masters of metaphors and of appealing to emotion. At the same time, the majority religiously avoids being explicit. “Good” art is not dogmatic. We prefer to leave it up to our audiences to find meaning for themselves.

In the past 150 years, we have seen that if we push our noble pursuits to the extreme, we risk losing our purpose because we lose our link to society. If people don’t understand how scientific findings matter to them and if artists are too scared or simply too wound up in their own world, and thus fail to articulate, our work falls short of its ultimate purpose: to serve society by revealing truths in the world around us so that people can make better-informed decisions on how to go about their work and lives and shape the direction of our planet and the over 7 billion people populating it.

Arts and science need to be free – in 2015, I believe this freedom lies in the ability to present our findings clearly and independently. This quest, coupled with a new sense of responsibility to communicate, is what can and should bring scientists and artists together in the coming years and decades. I, for one, am excited that IIASA has opened its doors for us to join hands so we can create a sustainable future together and perhaps fulfill Wilson’s vision of a second enlightenment along the way.

Please note: I use the terms ‘humanities’ and ‘arts’ interchangeably here. However the term humanities is of course technically broader, as it includes not only the creative arts, but also political theory & philosophy.

References

Wilson, Edward O. The meaning of Human Existence. New York: Norton & Company, 2014

Sedláček, Benedikt, Twaalfhoven. Arts Economics and the Irrational – A debate in 3 Acts. November 29th 2015. www.vimeo.com/120531313

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.

Do scientists need the media?

By Katherine Leitzell, IIASA Science Writer

Earlier this month, IIASA hosted an unusual guest—science journalist, blogger, and educator Andrew Revkin. Revkin is probably best-known for his work at the New York Times and the blog Dot.Earth. He also teaches at Pace University and has recently been involved in sustainability projects such as Future Earth.

At a lunchtime seminar on science communication, Revkin surprised many IIASA scientists by focusing primarily on new media, rather than on old-school models of press releases and interviews with journalists.

Old-school journalism is long gone. What's replacing it is still developing - which brings opportunities for scientists willing to get into the game.

Old-school journalism is long gone. What’s replacing it is still developing – which brings opportunities for scientists willing to get into the game. (Photo: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in the 1940 film His Girl Friday/ Public Domain)

The reason? The world of journalism is changing quickly.  “The days of a reporter sitting down with a notebook and interviewing you for a story are over,” he said.  There are fewer and fewer reporters specializing in science journalism and those who remain in the field have tighter deadlines and more to cover.

The good news is that researchers need not send out a press release and wait for a reporter to call them to share their story. Blogs, social media, and videos provide new channels for communication. Revkin argued that these channels may even form a better platform for communicating complicated, sticky subjects—like much IIASA research—than traditional news stories, which have a tendency to oversimplify information. A blog, in contrast to a news story, can examine a topic from multiple angles over a longer period of time, giving a “prismatic” view of a multifaceted problem.

Yet blogging and engaging on social media take time. How can a researcher fit communication in on top of already substantial workloads?

The answer is that you don’t have to. Not every scientist needs to engage the public all the time, but every institution should have channels and content to do so, and be able to help scientists to tell their stories.

Revkin, left, chats with participants in IIASA’s Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) (Photo: K. Leitzell, IIASA)

Why bother? Some benefits of communication are clear: Research has shown that scholarly articles shared on twitter end up with more citations, and some journals are even using social media sharing, for example using  altmetrics, as a new measure of study impact.

Taking control of communication using new media can also circuitously lead to coverage in traditional media. Journalists around the world use Twitter to research stories and find sources.  Revkin explained that when researching his blog posts, he searches for posts by scientists that provide background and explanation. Then he links to these sources.  In fact, today Revkin defines his role as more a curator of information than a journalist.

At the same time, by learning to write and communicate in an understandable way for the general public, and practicing this skill, researchers also hone important communication skills that can help them effectively engage with policymakers.

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.

Black swan sandwich: From one risk to layered risks

By Leena Ilmola-Sheppard, IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) Program

Crisis management problems are getting more complex and complicated, but at the same time, governments have less and less resources for their management. How can research help decision makers plan for the unplannable?

Last week in Geneva,  I took part in a crisis management workshop for national decision makers organized by the OECD High Level Risk Forum and the Swiss Federation Chancellor  While the meeting was very specific to national security and crisis management, I found some takeaway messages that are relevant to us researchers as well, especially for those of us that hope that to help decision makers make better decisions through modeling.

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Mads Ecklon, Head of the Centre for Preparedness Planning and Crisis Management of the Danish Emergency Management Agency, used the figure above as a framework to explain crisis management. His message can also be applied to the development of any social system.  Picture 1 describes the standard starting point of the modeling exercise. We are modeling one behavior and then analyze how the system performance develops in a controlled situation. Ecklon explained that potential futures are not so predictable: the crisis in hand can either be solved, solved only partially, not solved at all, or in the worst case the problem may escalate (you never know how a social system will react in the crisis situation—a small incident can turn into a massive riot).  The challenge for both national level crisis managers and modelers is same; you have to take all of these potential developments into a consideration.

But what happens if a new, unexpected crisis pops up while all attention is focused on the initial problem?  Such hard-to-predict events are often referred to as “black swan events.” Eclon said that their team has more frequently been seeing situations where, when attention is focused on the current crisis, a new, different or related, crisis develops and no one notices it.  For example, in the UK in 2007, just when all the crisis management resources were invested in flooding crisis, foot and mouth disease broke out among cattle.  The new phenomenon, Ecklon  claimed, is that these crises are piling up and even if they are independent from each other, the joint impact can be disastrous.

Leena5

Modeling black swan events
I think that this message is important for modelers as well.  We may be very happy to model all the four windows of our comic strip. But how can we include new surprises and crises into an ongoing model?   We should develop models that include different development trajectories triggered by a change in one of our variables, but simultaneously we should be able to account for several overlapping surprises.

In the meeting, national risk managers spoke about ”unknown unknowns,” low probability high impact risks–strange unforeseen animals like a black swan that jump on the plate just when we think that the situation is in some kind of control.

This kind of modeling challenge is fascinating from an academic perspective, but researchers’ intellectual hunger should not be the only reason to develop methods for these kinds of situations.  From decision makers’ perspective, this is exactly the case where useful models are needed. The multiple simultaneous developments of the complex systems are difficult to capture even for the brightest of the crisis teams, but a model could manage a job very well.

Most of the IIASA models are large, integrated models that cover global systems. These models are not designed for digesting black swan sandwiches.  The Danish crisis management team has a solution worth for benchmarking for this problem as well. They have a specific small team that is called a Pandora’s Cell.  Pandora’s Cell is dedicated to anticipating, imagining, and scanning for potential not-so-obvious developments that should be taken into consideration in decision making. This dedicated team is needed because all the other resources available have been focused on the obvious events, as described in the square one of our comic strip.

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Black swan events refer to those that are unpredictable and difficult to plan for. © Wrangel | Dreamstime.com – Black Swan Photo