Creating a safe space to talk about gender equality in science

By Luiza Toledo, Science Communication Fellow 2019

Luiza Toledo writes about how the IIASA Women in Science Club are creating a safe space to talk about and advance gender equality in science.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. A recent report titled, Harnessing the power of data for gender equality produced by Equal Measures 2030, however, shows that we still have a long way to go before this goal becomes a reality.

Countries in Europe and North America, along with two in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia and New Zealand), achieved the highest scores in terms of gender equality on the 2019 SDG Gender Index. However, even in the 20 top scoring countries, there are still indicators that score low. This suggests that even the countries with high overall scores for gender equality are struggling with thorny issues – one of them being women in science and technology research positions.

As an international institute, IIASA was founded on the principles of equal opportunity, which naturally includes equality in terms of gender balance. The institute’s 2018 Annual Report shows that the number of early-career female IIASA scientists has steadily been growing over the last few years. Since 2016, the number of female researchers increased by 24%, with most of the new hires joining as research assistants. Despite this increasing trend, the gap for PhD level researchers is as high as it has ever been with men outnumbering women four to one. In addition, there is a lack of female scientists in the over-40 age group, which is by no means unique to IIASA. Researchers who study gender and science have even compared women’s careers in science with a leaky pipeline – a flawed channel system that loses quantity before it reaches the destination.

©Liebentritt_Christoph

Even though it is unrealistic to expect a 100% retention of women in science related careers (or any career for that matter), male researchers still have a much higher retention rate in scientific careers than their female colleagues do, and this is where the problem lies. According to the IIASA Diversity and Work Environment Report from 2015, male researchers at IIASA on average stay with the institute for seven years, whereas female researchers stay for only four years. To overcome the leaky pipeline effect, we should start creating a workplace culture that aims to recruit and retain women and is more open to discussing and tackling gender issues in academia, thereby developing a safe networking space.

The Women in Science Club (WISC) at IIASA is a great example of a safe networking space that embraces gender equality and shows the power of women that support other women. Co-led led by Amanda Palazzo, a researcher in the institute’s Ecosystems Services and Management Program, and IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Monika Bauer, the club has a self-proclaimed mission to build a network where women connected to science can share experiences, empower themselves, and highlight the work of other women connected to science.

The idea of creating a network of women in science came about in the fall of 2016 when former Finnish President, Tarja Halonen, visited IIASA. During her visit, she asked to meet with the women of IIASA to talk about diversity and equity issues. This conversation was the first of several meetings that are now attended by women (and men) across the institute under the auspices of WISC.

“The conversation was inspiring and after that first meeting, a few of us thought about organizing a club to continue working on the issues that came up from our discussion with President Halonen,” explains Palazzo.

Nowadays, the WISC organizers arrange lunchtime meetings known as “Meet, greet, and eat” sessions to coincide with visits to IIASA by prominent researchers and other professionals from IIASA and elsewhere who want to share their experiences.

“I’ve found that more experienced and senior women who may have been the only women in their departments at the start of their careers or may have had to fight for a seat at the table are often the quickest to agree to meet with WISC. This shows me that they see the value in a club like ours,” Palazzo adds.

Although the number of women now engaged in science is the highest it has ever been, there are still too few women in positions of leadership. According to Palazzo, at IIASA, this situation is set to change with the institute’s newly appointed Deputy Director General for Science who joined IIASA in November this year.

“I’m excited that Leena Srivastava has joined us and I hope that this is just the start of many changes at IIASA that will bring more women into positions of leadership,” she says.

Palazzo says that the most valuable thing that she has learned so far is that no two women have the same story or path to success.

“I found it reassuring to hear successful women tell us that when they were starting out or even several years into their careers they also didn’t know exactly what contribution they wanted to make. They were learning as they went along. It has also been useful to hear women talk about building resilience to negative comments or behaviors and recognize that these behaviors reflect the other person’s fear and insecurity. In the end, the Women in Science Club is a place to share, contribute, listen, and learn. We want women connected to science to feel that they are a member of our community, that they have a seat at our table, and that they belong here,” she concludes.

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.

Introducing a framework for 21st century biological invasions

By Bernd Lenzner, post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Botany and Biodiversity at the University of Vienna, Austria and IIASA YSSP alumnus

To guide action towards a sustainable future for nature and people, it is crucial to understand the role of invasive species in shaping global biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as how this depends on human actions.

Imagine arriving at the shores of a country you have never visited before. What kind of nature awaits you? Will you be stunned by the beauty of plants and animals you only know from documentaries and books? Will you be fascinated by the songs of birds you’ve never heard before? Or, will you find species you know from your backyard and the landscape surrounding your home?

© Johan Larson | Dreamstime.com

Most of us probably hope to find new, untouched nature with many plants and animals we haven’t encountered yet. Isn’t that after all the purpose of exploring our planet? Unfortunately, nowadays we see that the biota in many regions of the world are becoming more and more similar as a consequence of the movement of species by humans across the globe. Recent studies have shown that approximately 4% of all plants [1], 10% of all birds [2], and 2% of all amphibians and reptiles [3] worldwide can be found in regions outside their native distribution, and these numbers are increasing with no sign of saturation [4]. Once introduced, these so-called alien species can emerge as a major threat to global biodiversity [5] and ecosystem services [6], and lead to global biotic homogenization [7].

We know that these trends are driven not only by the intentional and unintentional human introduction of species into new regions through increased trade and transport, but also by how climate and land use facilitate the establishment of species outside their native range. While these drivers are expected to largely evolve in the decades to come, researchers have so far been unable to build scenarios exploring the long-term dynamics of the distribution of alien species and their impacts.

I lead a joint study between researchers from Vienna University, IIASA, and other colleagues that was recently published in the journal BioScience [8]. In our paper, we introduced the necessary steps for building scenarios of future long-term dynamics of biological invasion at a global scale. We propose a general framework for global 21st century scenarios and models of biological invasions and review essential datasets and milestones. This is the first time that biological invasions are put into a global scenario context with the aim to develop qualitative storylines that can be linked to quantitative models.

I actually started working on this in 2017 when I was still a PhD student in the Division of Conservation Biology, Landscape, and Vegetation Ecology at the University of Vienna, and a participant in the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program. The project helped to build bridges between research communities deeply involved in core activities from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

IIASA was involved in IPBES’ methodological assessment on the use of models and scenarios for biodiversity and ecosystem services and in its efforts to apply biodiversity models in existing IPCC scenarios [9] to deliver insights into the IPBES’ global assessment report released earlier this year. Recently, the IIASA Bending the curve project [10] led by David Leclère, a researcher in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program, used models to elicit what type and ambition of actions are necessary to reverse biodiversity declines, to support on-going discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on a global international agreement for people and nature to be negotiated in 2020. I am a member of the IPBES expert group involved in the writing of the upcoming thematic assessment on invasive alien species and their control, and also a contributor to a new research project called AlienScenarios funded by BiodivERsA and the Belmont Forum. Led by my supervisor Franz Essl at the University of Vienna, this project will assess global and regional mid- and long-term trends of alien species richness and impacts, as well as develop scenarios for biological invasions.

In the near future, we hope to integrate these on-going projects, to allow better modeling of global biodiversity trends and their drivers, as integrating biological invasions into the global picture are required to materialize the 2050 vision of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

References

[1] van Kleunen M et al. (2015) Global exchange and accumulation of non-native plants. Nature, 525, 100-103.

[2] Dyer EE, Redding DW, Blackburn TM (2017) The global avian invasions atlas, a database of alien bird distributions worldwide. Scientific Data, 4, 170041.

[3] Capinha C, Seebens H, Cassey P, García-Díaz P, Lenzner B, Mang T, Moser D, Pyšek P, Rödder D, Scalera R, Winter M, Dullinger S, Essl F (2017) Diversity, biogeography and the global flows of alien amphibians and reptiles. Diversity and Distributions, 23, 1313-1322.

[4] Seebens H et al. (2017) No saturation in the accumulation of alien species worldwide. Nature Communications, 8, 14435.

[5] Maxwell SL, Fuller RA, Brooks TM, Watson JEM (2016) Biodiversity: The ravages of guns, nets and bulldozers. Nature, 536, 143-145.

[6] Pejchar L & Mooney HA (2009) Invasive species, ecosystem services and human well-being. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 9, 497-504.

[7] Capinha C, Essl F, Seebens H, Moser D, Pereira HM (2015) The dispersal of alien species redefines biogeography in the Anthropocene. Science, 348, 1248-1251.

[8] Lenzner B, Leclère D, Franklin O, Seebens H, Roura-Pascual N, Obersteiner M, Dullinger S, Essf F (2019) A framework for global twenty-first century scenarios and models of biological invasions. BioScience, 69, 697-710.

[9] Kim HJ et al. (2018) A protocol for an intercomparison of biodiversity and ecosystem services models using harmonized land-use and climate scenarios. Geoscientific Model Development, 11, 4537-4562.

[10] Leclere D et al. (2018) Towards pathways bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity trends within the 21st century. IIASA DOI:10.22022/ESM/04-2018.15241.

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.

Reflections on IIASA, systems analysis, and the IIASA community in the Netherlands

Leen Hordijk has served in the capacity of project leader, Council member, and director of IIASA. He is currently professor emeritus at Wageningen University and special adviser to the Competence Centre on Modeling at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). He was recently interviewed by IIASA Network and Alumni officer, Monika Bauer.

Leen Hordijk at IIASA in 2006.

In 2007, you wrote an Options article on what systems analysis is in which you stated that systems analysis at IIASA is making an important—even essential—contribution to solving some of the world’s most complex problems. Is the role of systems analysis even more important today, and if so why? 

In today’s world, it is indeed more important. First and foremost, the world is more complex than it was 20 years ago. Internet, social media, and the accessibility of transport options make the world more connected and thus more complex. Systems analysis can assist in disentangling the complexities and in trying to quantify where possible. Science is frequently under attack by interest groups, climate change deniers, and even some governments. It is therefore even more important to have an international, multidisciplinary, and multi-cultural institute like IIASA to bring scientific results to policymakers and society. Impartiality and knowledgeability are in the institute’s genes. The world notices this in scientific contributions by IIASA to policy debates in energy, biodiversity, climate change, disaster management, air quality, aging population issues, water management, and technology development.

In my personal development, IIASA has played a key role since my first visit in 1979 when I attended a regional economics conference. “IIASA gets into your blood”, as one of our sons said when I was thinking about applying for the IIASA directorship back in 2001. That is so true for many alumni.

What are your reflections on your time as IIASA Director General?

When I arrived as director in 2002, the challenge was twofold. First, I had to deal with financial issues, as two major members of IIASA had not lived up to their commitments, while expenditures had not been reduced. Second, some ten years after the end of the Cold War, the IIASA membership structure had not changed. The first problem was solved through a thorough 25% expenditure reduction plan and a re-engagement of said members. IIASA staff realized that cuts were necessary, and they were very engaged in finding solutions. The re-engagement of member countries went quickly because of the involvement of Austrian government officials, in particular Raoul Kneucker. The second issue took more time: expanding membership for IIASA to become a global institute rather than an East-West one. With China already on board when I arrived, we expanded membership with Egypt, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea.

In terms of content and scientific quality, I was very happy to find an excellent staff. What surprised me was that the number of social scientists (including economists) was higher than I had expected, and the total sum of external financing was quite low. In the following years, most programs became very successful at acquiring projects funded by the European Research Council and various Directorates-General of the European Commission.

Today, IIASA is a major player in terms of providing impartial scientific input in the analysis of many global challenges, such as energy, air quality and climate change, sustainable development, disaster risks, ecosystem services, demography, and technological transitions. IIASA is often a leading institute in signaling global trends and changes and, very importantly, uses its broad systems analytic and modeling capacity to quantify such changes and bring the results to policy fora.

In your opinion, how has the Dutch community benefited from the IIASA network?

It is always very hard to point at such benefits, because more often than not, they cannot be linked to single causes. That aside, I think that the Netherlands’ strength in systems analysis for environment, climate, and energy can, for a substantial part, be linked to leading scientists who spent time at IIASA and/or are active participants in IIASA networks. Last year I came across a nice example when I had a temporary assignment as chief scientist at PBL, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. In that year, PBL was heavily involved in analyzing a draft national climate agreement for the Dutch government. I met two key scientists in that team who I knew as Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participants during my time as director of IIASA. It was very exciting to notice how they had grown since their time as YSSPers and became essential in the PBL team.

Being part of global scientific networks, gaining experience in advanced interdisciplinary work, and, last but not least, the YSSP, are specific benefits all member countries receive from being a part of IIASA. IIASA was not founded for the benefit of single countries – it is the global good that the institute tries to understand and serve.

I have also personally benefited from being a part of the IIASA network. When I left IIASA in May 2008, I became director of the Institute for Environment and Sustainability of the JRC in Ispra, Italy. IIASA and the JRC have become close collaborators in various fields of research.

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here

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.

Managing complexity in social systems: Leverage points for policy and strategy

By Christoph E. Mandl, IIASA alumnus and Senior Lecturer at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna

Apprehensive about ever growing crises of corporate and political governance, I wrote a book titled, Managing complexity in social systems: Leverage points for policy and strategy, that addresses these crises and appropriate actions from a complex systems, system dynamics, and systems thinking perspective. The premise of the book is that more and more policies and strategies tend to fail and it is based on my personal experiences and the stories of many policymakers.

© Peshkova | Dreamstime

In her disconcerting booklet, The collapse of Western civilization: A view from the future Naomi Oreskes stated: “Analysts agree that the people of Western civilizations knew what was happening to them but were unable to stop it. Indeed, the most startling aspect of this collapse is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew.”

So, what can be done about this? How can the complexity of modern societies be managed? Naturally, answers to these questions are anything but trivial. Insights from complexity science, system dynamics, system theory, and systems thinking may not give a full answer but could perhaps point us in the right direction.

In writing my book aimed at closing these societal knowing-doing gaps, four IIASA alumni shaped and influenced my thinking:

The first was Thomas Schelling, who was key for me in showing how, in the context of segregation, a social system’s macro-behavior emerges that is quite different to the micro-motives of the individuals.

Brian Arthur’s book, Increasing returns and path dependence in the economy, revealed to me a totally new perspective on the dynamics of social systems where disequilibrium is not only possible, but normal.

Through John Sterman’s article Bathtub dynamics: Initial results of a systems thinking inventory, I understood how important the distinction between stocks and flows is for decision making in dynamic environments.

Lastly, when I first came across Donella Meadows’ article, Places to intervene in a system, its impact on me was profound. In my view, it was the first publication that addressed decision making from a strictly dynamic point of view. This article and her publication Chicken Little, Cassandra, and the real wolf, forever changed and inspired my thinking about what it means to manage and to make decisions.

Without the insights of these four outstanding IIASA alumni, my book would never have been written. Thank you, IIASA, for bringing them all to Laxenburg!

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here.

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.

Lessons from 50 years of model-based policy advocacy

Monika Bauer, IIASA Network and Alumni Officer, interviewed alumnus Dennis Meadows during his recent visit to IIASA. 

Dennis Meadows with colleagues in the IIASA Water & RISK Programs © Monika Bauer | IIASA

“It’s a great pleasure to be back at IIASA because the institute really had a big impact on my professional life,” said Dennis Meadows, coauthor of the seminal book Limits to Growth, after his lecture to IIASA staff during a recent visit to the institute. “I came to IIASA, and it gave me so many new ideas and contacts. It became the fuel for my professional activities for a long time.”

Meadows visited the IIASA Energy Program in 1977 when Roger Levien was director, and he says that Levien greatly impacted the way he viewed problems. In his lecture titled, Lessons from 50 years of model-based policy advocacy, he pointed out that Levien looked at problems as universal or global, and that he uses the criteria Levien passed on to him in what he calls “problem selection” to this day. Meadows also spent some time at the institute from 1983-1984 when C.S. Buzz Holling was director.

During his lecture, Meadows highlighted the idea of using the concept of an “invisible college” as a strategy to implement academic work. He explained that an “invisible college” usually constitutes a group of about 50 people connected with an issue, who, while they do not necessarily all have to agree on the issue or do the same work, can collectively come up with a solution.

© Dennis Meadows

Meadows created his version of an invisible college through the Balaton Group, a global network for collaboration on systems and sustainability that he founded in 1982. He says that the network is meant to “connect and empower people who will go back home and do good things”. Meadows stopped by IIASA on his way to the group’s annual retreat in at Lake Belaton in Hungary, where 50 leading scientists, teachers, consultants, writers, and managers annually get together to discuss topical issues on their own costs. According to Meadows, this in itself shows the value individuals see in the meetings. The results of past meetings are outlined on the group’s webpage.

When asked about his key messages for IIASA, Meadows’ answers focused on the institute’s alumni network and exploring a deeper understanding of resilience.

“The incredible power of IIASA lies in its alumni, rather than in its models. You create the alumni network through the process of creating models. IIASA doesn’t have many models, but it has thousands of alumni. One of the first things I would look at is how to link alumni more strongly together, so they could help each other. I still have affection for the institute and respect for what it does, and I’m sure that my opinion is shared by many.”

His second take-away for IIASA concerns building a deeper expertise on resilience. “Sustainable development is something that is hard to realize, while there is no doubt that shocks will continue to occur, and there is no unified theory in resilience yet. In my opinion, IIASA has an opportunity to tap into a huge legacy of understanding that goes back to Buzz Holling’s work.”

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.

My postdoc experience at IIASA

By Nandita Saikia, Assistant Professor of Population Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and former postdoctoral researcher at IIASA

IIASA alumna Nandita Saikia, looks back on the two years that she spent living in Austria while working as a postdoctoral researcher in the World Population Program.

The submission of my PhD thesis, marriage, taking up a university position, and becoming a mother, all happened rather quickly for me. By the time I realized that I wanted to experience working outside of my own country, a good five years had flown by from the day that I received my PhD. For a female academic, who is trying to balance family and work, a decision to move abroad was never going to be easy. It needed a lot of planning, not only in terms of the research topic that I wanted to pursue, but also in terms of organizing things in a way that would lead to the least disruption for the research students I was supervising and of course, my family.

Nandiita Saikia | © Nandita Saikia

With little hope and many conditions, I searched for postdoctoral positions on the websites of various institutes. I was amazed when I found an advertisement for a postdoc position at IIASA, which mentioned that it had extended application deadlines for another 18 months – specifically to accommodate female candidates on maternity leave. This gender sensitive rule made my application possible, and ultimately gave me a rich experience and memories that I will cherish forever.

Looking back at the past two years at IIASA, a long list of reasons why this was such an amazing time of my and my family’s lives, comes to mind. The institute is housed in a beautiful two hundred and seventy five year old castle in Laxenburg just outside of Vienna. As an IIASA employee, my family and I could access the green imperial park once meant for Austria’s iconic empress Sissi, at any time. Apart from massive, century old trees that may have shaded Sissi on her own visits, the park contains a spring, a waterfall, and a lake with numerous monuments to Austrian royal families that frequented it over the centuries. The lush green trees, the musical sound of the spring, together with chirping wild ducks and swans, the Laxenburg castles, the tall yellow church under the deep blue sky – all constantly stimulated the spirit of a nature lover like me.

In terms of the more practical aspects of working at IIASA, staff from administration were always available to address all our personal and professional issues efficiently and warmly. We were supported with everything from extending our visas, finding a suitable place to live, and communicating with my son’s school in German, to locating the right physician. The IIASA Communication Department also helped me to convey the meaning of my research in “non-technical language” to a wider audience, for whom the findings are ultimately meant.

The soul of IIASA is truly international and inter-disciplinary. From North to South, East to West, I met colleagues from all parts of the world. The overall research environment is conducive to doing quality research. Our program director, Wolfgang Lutz, extended all possible support for me to stay at IIASA for two years. I however still had enough freedom to manage my responsibilities in terms of the supervision of my PhD students back in India.

IIASA always encourages its employees to be active and fit and supports them to do this in numerous ways. There are a number of clubs and activities on offer, including yoga, a music club, a running club, a swimming club, cycling, German lessons, aerobics, and a tennis club. The institute also maintains a gym for staff members. Some of my colleagues even kept workout clothes in the office for when they could manage to participate in some of these activities amidst their busy schedules. Although it was of course not possible to be in all the clubs, you had a choice, which contributed to the overall “feel good” environment.  Being an international research organization, IIASA celebrates the different cultures of its staff members by organizing themed social gatherings like Asia Day, Latin American Day, Canada Day, and Mediterranean Day, to name a few, during which staff have the chance to taste authentic homemade cuisines and see cultural music or dance performances by colleagues. My heart knew no bounds when I got a chance to perform a Bollywood number and an Indian folk dance with my international colleagues!

I also developed an affinity with the IIASA Women in Science Club, which often organized “Meet, Greet and Eat” sessions during which we had the opportunity to interact with established women scientists in an informal way. It was indeed an eye opener to learn about how they overcame common challenges either in their early or later careers.

During our stay, we fully experienced life in Vienna, which has repeatedly been ranked as the best city in the world to live in. The centrality of Vienna also helped us to explore many neighboring countries. In our second year, we lived in Laxenburg where we felt very much at home. We loved how smoothly the little town runs while offering everything needed for a high quality life when raising young children.

Our time at IIASA was extremely productive, but we still felt as if we were in Vienna for a two-year long vacation! If someone asks me whether they should consider IIASA for a post doc or the Young Scientists Summer Program, my answer will be: “Yes, don’t even think twice!”

Nandita Saikia was a postdoctoral researcher at IIASA from 2017 to 2019. More information available at www.nanditasaikia.com.

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.