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.

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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

Envisioning a better global future: Reporting back from the World in 2050 launch meeting

By Joost Vervoort, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

“Vision is the most vital step in the policy process. If we don’t know where we want to go, it makes little difference that we make great progress. Yet vision is not only missing almost entirely from policy discussions; it is missing from our whole culture.” Donella Meadows 

In the face of increasing human pressures on the planet, in a time that is now described as the Anthropocene, the need to finding pathways toward a sustainable and just global future is critical. In 2015, the world’s nations agree on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – aiming to subscribe to a global narrative on a desired future of human development in all its dimensions.

Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

Vervoort, center, speaks with Tanzanian policy makers at a workshop organized as part of CCAFS’ PACCA project (Policy Action for Climate Change Adaptation). The scenarios used in this workshop were developed with regional stakeholders and quantified by IIASA’s GLOBIOM model and IFPRI’s IMPACT model. Photo Credit: E. van de Grift

The World in 2050 project aims to support the vision of the SDGs by quantifying it and assessing its feasibility through model simulations covering a range of development and environmental dimensions. The goal is to use top science to show that a better world is possible, and explore what transformations and trade-offs are needed to achieve that future. The world’s top modelling groups on population, energy, food, water, technology and other sectors have been invited to join forces for this project.

At a first meeting at IIASA in Laxenburg from 10 to 12 March 2015, the project organizers brought together world-leading modelling teams as well as representatives of global organizations like the OECD, the IMF, the Global Environment Facility and the World Energy Council. A number of us also had experience with using future scenarios for policy and strategy development.

The meeting had two purposes: to outline a way forward for the project, and to allow modelling teams to update each other on their most recent work. Excellent presentations on many dimensions of global change led many to believe that the combination of these modelling efforts would be able to provide a strong exploration of the feasibility of the SDGs. Recommendations were also made to find ways to integrate highly relevant, but not easily quantifiable, dimensions of human development, such as conflict, governance, cultural and value changes and issues of gender inequality. Other challenges that were highlighted had to do with the fact that the future is fundamentally uncertain, and systems models can have difficulty anticipating the impacts of future drivers that are not part of the current scope of concern. The solution to such challenges can be a reflexive approach to integrating model simulation and qualitative information, such as stories about future pathways, that can try to take such dimensions and uncertainties into account and also make clear what they don’t capture.

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

The launch workshop for the World in 2050 project involved researchers from a number of key institutions. Credit: Matthias Silveri / IIASA

What I saw as perhaps the key conversation in the meeting, however, is one that characterizes many discussions about how to productively engage with the challenges of the future. Is it better to build one unifying vision, or to develop many different future scenarios from the perspectives of a wide range of actors? In the context of the World in 2050 project, developing a single, quantified vision for the SDGs has the benefit of harnessing the power of the best global change research to create a powerful, deeply examined notion that a better world is possible, supported by the voices of global-level organizations. An alternative approach that we discussed was to engage regional and national decision-makers first and build and quantify a diversity of visions and pathways from the perspectives of these actors. The benefit of this approach is that national and regional decision makers may be more likely to perceive this quantitative visioning  as useful, and that there is space for and ownership of diverse notions of a better future based on different sets of values.

The leaders of the World in 2050 project took these considerations into account and proposed a way forward: focus on a single global, quantified vision first, to kick-start dialogues about the feasibility of a transformative future at the global level by providing top-level science. Jeffrey Sachs, as one of the project leaders, argued that the SDGs will already involve many interactive processes that allow for a diversity of ideas and conversations at national and regional levels on how to achieve these goals; and that rather than trying to support all SDG-related work, the World in 2050 project would have the most complementary value if it provided its clear, quantified global vision first. Then, a next phase of the project will be to connect to global regions and to national-level processes and find out how the insights from the project can be used. Many of us in the meeting indicated that we have strong networks at regional and national levels that can support this phase. From the beginning of the global modelling project, Sachs and colleagues already envision a strong need to have regional diversity in the analysis, to make sure its results are relevant at that level.

”Also clear from the discussions was that this vision should not just be aimed at policy makers, but that it should speak powerfully to people in all walks of life. Widespread public support for such a vision could be a strong contributor to political momentum. Several speakers referred to the impact of the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study, which, though controversial, stimulated thinking and action around environmental change and sustainability worldwide. Innovative communication approaches that powerfully engage people with the vision will be crucial – if future visions can be made real in an experiential sense, they have a much stronger chance of changing behavior and decisions.

Collaborations across international networks
The World in 2050 project plans to build on the excellent simulation-based work on transformation pathways toward SDGs done by the Dutch Environment Assessment Agency.

It will be very interesting to see the global vision take shape and to help connect it to regional and national action and strategy. With IIASA colleagues from the GLOBIOM team, the CGIAR’s Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security program is helping decision makers in Africa, Asia and Latin America develop better policies using socio-economic and climate scenarios, and from our experience, working with future pathways that are inspiring as well as feasible is very attractive to governments and other actors.

Other interactions with complementary projects can be explored – for instance, the “Bright Spots – Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”  project takes an  opposite, bottom-up approach to future visioning – collecting local “seed” practices with global, transformative potential and combining them to foster dialogues about a better Anthropocene. A similar process for bottom-up transformation pathways on the future of food in Europe also involves IIASA researchers.

References
Meadows, Donella, J. Randers and D. Meadows. Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

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.

Climate change missing from government risk agendas

By Leena Ilmola-Sheppard, IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program

When government officials speak about risks, they are usually referring to natural disasters. And it seems in these discussions that the increasing frequency of flooding, droughts, snow storms, and hurricanes have no link to climate change nor mitigation of it.

Last week,  I had an opportunity to sit and listen to discussions at the fourth annual Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) High Level Risk Forum.  The objective of the forum is to initiate joint development of the national level risk management tools and procedures.  National risk directors form their Prime Minister’s Offices and OECD ambassadors spent three rainy days from December 10-12 discussing risk.

The most of the time, the discussion centered around disaster risks.  Whatever the theme of the  session, the discussion ended up on disaster management, disaster costs, or best practices. This is a theme that was recognized to be of importance in every government.  The other risks that were presented were terrorism, the Ebola epidemic, and illicit trade. The missing themes–that I had expected to be on the agenda–were technology related, financial risks and political risks.

Photo Credit: Ched Cheddles via Flickr

Governments usually take risk to mean natural disasters – but missing from most discussions are climate change, technology, financial, and political risks. Here: storm clouds over England in September 2014. Photo Credit: Ched Cheddles via Flickr

Margaret Wahlstrom, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, gave the best presentation. Her key message war that climate change related issues were not integrated well enough with risk management.  Kate White from the US Army Corps of Engineers supported Wahlstrom by stating that the climate change will radically change disaster management goals, procedures, and volume of investment.  There should be a strong motivation for that, she said, as disasters are coming more expensive.  According to her data, the total cost of hurricane Sandy was 65 billion US$.

The Australian government calculations presented in the meeting are very revealing as well; from Australian government is spending around 400 million AU$ for disaster prevention and response, and 2.6 billion AU$  for recovery.  As the Australian example shows, governments have a long way to go from words to action. Governments have not yet realized the role of mitigation, at least not in the budgeting level.

The main theme of this year’s forum was “risk and resilience.”  So the word was used a lot in all of the presentations.  However, the concept of resilience seems to have many meanings and concrete substance behind the word is ambiguous.  Margaret Wahlstrom pointed out that there is a need for a cross-discipline understanding of resilience, as well as for a generic resilience measurement system.   Concrete quantitative indicators would help policymakers to assess the development actions needed, improvement achieved, and provide justification for development actions.

The most vivid discussion concerned the relationship of the national risk management and public involvement. Countries such as the United Kingdom promote full transparency and active risk communications, while some of the governments such as Singapore focus on communicating the vision and improvement ideas instead of risks.  My interpretation of the discussion is that many of the represented government experts perceive risks to be too complicated to communicate to a general audience.  The Nordic countries even go beyond communication, to encourage and support self-organized actions. For example the government supported people when they started to offer shelter and places to sleep for those that got stuck on the road during the October storms of this year, the worst to hit the region in decades.

Read the forum’s summary document draft (PDF)

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

How can Europe cope with multiple disaster risks?

Interview with IIASA risk expert Nadejda Komendantova

In a new study, IIASA Risk, Policy, and Vulnerability Program researcher Nadejda Komendantova and colleagues from Germany and Switzerland examined how natural hazards and risks assessments can be incorporated into decision-making processes in Europe on mitigation of multiple risks. 

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

A cyclist rides along the flooded Danube River in Braila, Romania, in 2010. Credit: cod_gabriel on Flickr

Why did you decide to conduct this study?
European decision makers currently have a number of methods that they can use to assess natural hazards and risks and apply to the decision-making process. These methods include risk and hazard assessments, probabilistic scenarios, and socio-economic and engineering models.  The variety of tools is enormous and volume of knowledge and data is growing. However, the process of communication  between science and practice leaves a lot of open questions for research.

Researchers have developed a few tools to provide multiple risk assessment of a given territory. But even though these models have been tested by operational and practicing stakeholders, there is limited information about how useful the models are for civil protection stakeholders to use in practice.  In order to communicate results from science to practice and make it possible for decision-makers to use such tools, it helps to involve decision-makers in the development process. Participatory modeling, which is an important part of risk governance, allows us to not only to take into consideration the facts, but also values and judgments that decision-makers bring to their actions.

What questions did you aim to answer in your study?
The decision-making process becomes even more complex when we talk about situations with multiple risks – multi-risks – which involve interactions between several risks. How will decision-maker will prioritize their actions on risk mitigation or on resources allocation when facing not single but multiple risks? We also wanted to find out if the tools developed by science such as decision support models could be suitable for these tasks. Another question is if there are differences in perceptions of the usability of decision-support tools between different stakeholders, such as academia (based on more theoretical considerations) and civil protection (based on practice).

What are the multiple risks or hazards that face Europe?
Across Europe, people suffer losses not just from single hazards, but also from multiple events in combination. The most important hazards for Europe are earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires, winter storms, and floods along both rivers and coastlines.

What methods did you use to conduct your study?
To answer our research questions we collected feedback from civil protection stakeholders on existing risk and hazard assessment tools as well as on the generic multi-risk framework to understand interrelations between different risks, such as conjoint and cascade effects. The new study was based on a method developed by Arnaud Mignan at ETH Zürich, with a decision-support tool developed by Bijan Khazai at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Through a participatory approach, the decision-support tool allowed  stakeholders to assign relative importance to the losses for different sectors for each of the scenarios likely to occur in the region.

We collected data through questionnaires on existing risk assessment tools in Europe and their implementation. Then, using the new framework, we conducted focus group discussions in Bonn and Lisbon, and decision-making experiments applying the developed tools. Afterwards we had a chance to collect feedback from stakeholders.

What did you find?
The study showed that general standards for multi-risk assessment are still missing—there are different terminologies and different methodologies related to data collection, monitoring, and output. According to stakeholders from practice, this variety of data, assessment methods, tools and terminology might be a barrier for implementation of the multi-risk approach.

The study also found a sharp divide in understanding of the usability of the tools and areas for their application. Academic stakeholders saw the risk-assessment tools as being useful to understand loss and communication of multi-risk parameters. The stakeholders from practice instead saw  the tool as more useful for training and educational purposes as well as to raise awareness about possible multi-risk scenarios.

What should be done to help decision-makers make better decisions?
The study made it clear that we need to work on training and education, both for policymakers and the public. The models we have developed could be useful for educating stakeholders about the usefulness of a multi-risk approach, and to disseminate these results to the general public. It was recommended to use the tools during special training workshops organized for decision-makers on multi-risk mitigation to see possible consequences of a multi-hazard situation for their region. Participatory modeling, involving cooperation between scientists and decision-makers from practice, could not only improve communication processes between science and policy. In addition, decision-support models can become a part of dialogue to help to avoid judgment biases and systematic errors in decision-making and to help in complex decision-making process grounded on human rationality and judgment biases.

Reference:
Nadejda Komendantova, Roger Mrzyglocki, Arnaud Mignan, Bijan Khazai, Friedemann Wenzel, Anthony Patt, Kevin Fleming. 2014. Multi-hazard and multi-risk decision support tools as a part of participatory risk governance: Feedback from civil protection stakeholder. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221242091300068X

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.