A vision for a stronger IIASA

By Greg Davies-Jones, 2020 IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Greg Davies-Jones delves into the topic of Capacity Development at IIASA and what the institute hopes to achieve in the coming years.

Capacity development is an essential process in any ambitious organization. This is no different at IIASA. As an institute widely recognized for its global, non-partisan, policy-orientated research, it strives to stay ahead of the curve. IIASA prides itself on the diversity of its staff, while also remaining mindful of a variety of other, equally critical aspects such as organizational capability, impact, and influence. Given the magnitude of today’s global challenges, allied with the diversity of modern research, systems thinking has never had greater value, nor greater potential. Now more than ever, IIASA is needed.

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Leading the charge is Fabian Wagner, Dean of Capacity Development and Academic Training (CDAT) – a role that he fulfills in tandem with his responsibilities as a senior researcher in the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program.

“A priority for IIASA is nurturing the next generation of system analysts. This does not mean we are aiming for a particular number over a given period but rather it’s about making sure our research has maximum impact and being more strategic with how we deliver external expertise – streamlining CDAT helps that,” explains Wagner. “It’s similar to how we look at effectively using aid money – you don’t give to provide superficial solutions, you facilitate the actions needed to help people permanently solve problems. At IIASA this means if your country needs three people to carry out some technical assessment and our three people are busy, we can offer our tools and expertise to help you train three of your own people to carry out the analysis.”

An initiative at the forefront of broadening participation in systems analysis is the institute’s flagship Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP). This program, alongside the numerous IIASA postdoc opportunities, is a major building block for capacity development at the institute.

Every summer, a diverse mix of early-career scientists assemble at an 18th-century castle in Laxenburg, just outside Vienna, Austria – the institute’s headquarters – to spend three months working on a range of topics derived from and complementary to ongoing research being carried out as part of the IIASA research agenda. In parallel with the research endeavors, a program of activities and events ensure that YSSP participants spend the summer months being not solely scientifically stimulated, but professionally and culturally as well: Extending their professional networks; discovering Vienna’s cultural treasure-trove, and making a heap of new friends along the way. This interaction between IIASA and YSSP participants forms the beginning of a valued relationship that has the potential to facilitate further research, collaboration, and indeed positive action in the years to come.

© Christoph Liebentritt | IIASA

IIASA aims to expand its portfolio for early-career professionals beyond the YSSP and post-doc initiatives. In the coming years, the institute hopes to add a range of internships and fellowships to complement the current early-career opportunities: ” To really make bigger changes in the world, we need to broaden and deepen the understanding of systems science and also expand our networks,” affirms Wagner.

Wagner says that capacity development at the institute will lead to greater external value. An illustration of how this would serve as a catalyst for valuable, trans-national impact is the scope for increased interaction with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Globally, there is a raft of organizations offering foundational courses on the SDGs and how to achieve them. IIASA, likewise, contributes to this endeavor, not only to offer a basic understanding of the SDGs but specifically to delve into what the synergies and tradeoffs may be. Enhancing capability and developing strategic outlets to provide such outreach programs at the institute will boost external value and drive international impact,” Wagner adds.

Coupled with this fresh outlook on capacity development, IIASA recently finalized its plans for a new strategy that will ensure it continues to uphold its directive to provide independent, science-based insights to underscore systems capable of addressing global challenges over the next decade. This roadmap for the future of systems analysis at IIASA will run in tandem with capacity development. Driving both forward concurrently will, of course, require some give and take.

“This will likely result in a broader mandate at IIASA, which means more people engaging in capacity development activities and thus potentially proportionately fewer hours spent on research but, crucially, it will ensure our research has real impact. Notwithstanding, this does not necessarily mean that it is always a zero-sum game but rather a chance to create new opportunities elsewhere. Our people have different skills and are driven to engage in different activities. It is therefore about harnessing those skills and that drive and employing those attributes in the most suitable context. Ultimately, it is about creating more opportunities – that is how I see my role – as a new opportunity to create new opportunities,” concludes Wagner.

Applications for the 2021 YSSP are now open, apply 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.

Open science has to go beyond open source

By Daniel Huppmann, research scholar in the IIASA Energy Program

Daniel Huppmann sheds light on how open-source scientific software and FAIR data can bring us one step closer to a community of open science.

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Over the past decade, the open-source movement (e.g., the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Open Source Initiative (OSI)) has had a tremendous impact on the modeling of energy systems and climate change mitigation policies. It is now widely expected – in particular by and of early-career researchers – that data, software code, and tools supporting scientific analysis are published for transparency and reproducibility. Many journals actually require that authors make the underlying data available in line with the FAIR principles – this acronym stands for findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable. The principles postulate best-practice guidance for scientific data stewardship. Initiatives such as Plan S, requiring all manuscripts from projects funded by the signatories to be released as open-access publications, lend further support to the push for open science.

Alas, the energy and climate modeling community has so far failed to realize and implement the full potential of the broader movement towards collaborative work and best practice of scientific software development. To live up to the expectation of truly open science, the research community needs to move beyond “only” open-source.

Until now, the main focus of the call for open and transparent research has been on releasing the final status of scientific work under an open-source license – giving others the right to inspect, reuse, modify, and share the original work. In practice, this often means simply uploading the data and source code for generating results or analysis to a service like Zenodo. This is obviously an improvement compared to the previously common “available upon reasonable request” approach. Unfortunately, the data and source code are still all too often poorly documented and do not follow best practice of scientific software development or data curation. While the research is therefore formally “open”, it is often not easily intelligible or reusable with reasonable effort by other researchers.

What do I mean by “best practice”? Imagine I implement a particular feature in a model or write a script to answer a specific research question. I then add a second feature – which inadvertently changes the behavior of the first feature. You might think that this could be easily identified and corrected. Unfortunately, given the complexity and size to which scientific software projects tend to quickly evolve, one often fails to spot the altered behavior immediately.

One solution to this risk is “continuous integration” and automated testing. This is a practice common in software development: for each new feature, we write specific tests in an as-simple-as-possible example at the same time as implementing the function or feature itself. These tests are then executed every time that a new feature is added to the model, toolbox, or software package, ensuring that existing features continue to work as expected when adding a new functionality.

Other practices that modelers and all researchers using numerical methods should follow include using version control and writing documentation throughout the development of scientific software rather than leaving this until the end. In addition, not just the manuscript and results of scientific work should be scrutinized (aka “peer review”), but such appraisal should also apply to the scientific software code written to process data and analyze model results. In addition, like the mentoring of early-career researchers, such a review should not just come at the end of a project but should be a continuous process throughout the development of the manuscript and the related analysis scripts.

In the course that I teach at TU Wien, as well as in my work on the MESSAGEix model, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C scenario ensemble, and other projects at the IIASA Energy Program, I try to explain to students and junior researchers that following such best-practice steps is in their own best interest. This is true even when it is just a master’s thesis or some coursework assignment. However, I always struggle to find the best way to convince them that following best practice is not just a noble ideal in itself, but actually helps in doing research more effectively. Only when one has experienced the panic and stress caused by a model not solving or a script not running shortly before a submission deadline can a researcher fully appreciate the benefits of well-structured code, explicit dependencies, continuous integration, tests, and good documentation.

A common trope says that your worst collaborator is yourself from six months ago, because you didn’t write enough explanatory comments in your code and you don’t respond to emails. So even though it sounds paradoxical at first, spending a bit more time following best practice of scientific software development can actually give you more time for interesting research. Moreover, when you then release your code and data under an open-source license, it is more likely that other researchers can efficiently build on your work – bringing us one step closer to a community of open science!

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.

Reducing footprints and enhancing resilience: A strategic direction for the next decade

By Rachel Potter, Communications Officer in the IIASA Communications and External Relations Department.

Several members of the IIASA Strategic Taskforce share their views on the bold new IIASA strategic agenda, how it came to be, and what it promises for the future.

What will the world look like in 2030 and beyond? We are living in extraordinary times and our rapidly transforming planet faces multiple global sustainability challenges, threats, and opportunities. How will research institutes like IIASA continue to make meaningful contributions to address these complex issues?

This is precisely what IIASA has been exploring over the past 18 months while formulating its strategic direction for the next 10 years. Through institute-wide consultations, a strategic taskforce was entrusted with coordinating the process that led to “Reducing footprints, enhancing resilience” – the institute’s ambitious new strategy for 2021-2030 that positions IIASA as the primary destination for integrated systems solutions and policy insights.

A bottom-up inclusive approach

The strategy consultation process was very different to those previously undertaken at IIASA. Acting Transitions to New Technologies Program Director and Energy Program researcher, Shonali Pachauri describes the rationale behind the process:

“While in the past strategic planning had largely been driven by the directorate and program directors, this time, mid-career scientists were to drive the process forward. It was not meant to be one researcher from each program on the taskforce, but it ended up being something like that, so we had a broad representation of disciplines from across the institute. The taskforce was responsible for developing the scientific content of the plan and we did this in an inclusive manner with input from staff through workshops, an online platform, and both informal and formal meetings.”

Reflecting our changing world

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established in 2015, are clearly reflected in the new strategy. Linda See, a researcher in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program, explains:

“We have always worked on sustainable development and transformations but this is now more of a focus compared to the previous strategy. The emphasis is on using our expertise as systems scientists to explore the interrelationships between different SDGs and how there can be synergies and trade-offs in different scenarios to achieve them.”

“Another key shift is that the new strategic plan takes a human-centered approach, placing more emphasis on how people are a core component of pathways towards sustainability and resilient societies,” adds World Population Program Deputy Program Director, Raya Muttarak.

Fellow taskforce member and Acting Water Program Director, Yoshihide Wada, agrees:

“This focus on social science, governance, and human behavior came out of our consultations with staff. IIASA researchers really want to go in this direction. People increasingly understand that with the climate and environmental goals in particular, it can’t only be technology and bioeconomy, it has to be about lifestyles as well, which means we need to strengthen our ability to analyze behavior and identify which levers to pull to encourage lifestyle changes.”

“There is also a stronger focus on biodiversity. The importance of this was borne out of the current COVID-19 crisis. Looking at the origin of the virus and how the pandemic has been aided by the loss of biodiversity – it’s evident that this is crucial,” adds Manager of Library and Knowledge Resources, Michaela Rossini.

Building on strong foundations for continued innovation

Taskforce members agree that the new strategy consolidates the unique strengths of IIASA while providing the space and flexibility for innovation.

“IIASA is unique not only because of our excellence in the fields of energy, environment, climate change, and ecosystems services but also because we have strong, empirically-based analyses and studies from social sciences, which can quantify and forecast relevant demographic, social, and economic dimensions in systems analysis,” says Muttarak.

“I think the new strategy pushes the interdisciplinarity at IIASA even further. The new program structure is very integrated. This is vital to facing today’s sustainability challenges. There are big aspirations in the strategy and it’s our responsibility to translate this into practice. As scientists, we have to be open to change and include elements that we may never have thought of. It makes things very interesting. It makes innovation happen,” Wada adds.

Pachauri explains that IIASA was created as a science-to-policy interface in 1972 and its purpose has always been to bridge divides: both between disciplines and across transnational boundaries. The new strategy really builds on this history. While the institute innovates a lot in terms of models and methods, this always happens through an applied lens of doing something that will ultimately feed into policy.

One of the institute’s key strengths is its relationships with its National Member Organizations and strong global network. These relationships are what make it possible to tackle the real-world problems society faces today. The flexibility to work across networks, countries, and different levels of government is strongly emphasized in the strategy.

A bit like family

According to Muttarak, the process of drawing up the new IIASA strategy has been a great opportunity to work with people from different programs and units. Not only has this allowed everyone involved to get to know their colleagues better, but it has also enhanced team members’ understanding of systems analysis and the importance of IIASA.

“It was challenging and rewarding, a bit like family!” comments Pachauri. “There was a lovely dynamism in the team and although we had a Chair, everyone had a chance to lead at various times in the process.”

“As the only non-scientist I found working on the taskforce invaluable – understanding more about IIASA research and getting to know scientists from across the institute has really enhanced my awareness of what they do and what their needs are going forward,” Rossini concludes.

The full IIASA Strategic Taskforce is comprised of: Luis Gomez Echeverri, Matthias Jonas, Mauricio A. Lopes, Junko Mochizuki, Raya Muttarak, Shonali Pachauri, Michaela Rossini, Linda See, Thomas Schinko, Yoshihide Wada, and Fabian Wagner.

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.

Air travel and COVID-19: How effective are travel bans?

By Tamás Krisztin, researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

Tamás Krisztin discusses the air travel restrictions instituted by governments across the globe and how effective they really are in terms of curbing the spread of COVID-19.

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Many Western countries are reaching, or have reached, the peak of COVID-19 infections, and policymakers are increasingly turning their attention to the next critical question: how to lift lockdown restrictions responsibly, while at the same time making sure that trade and travel can be restored to as close to “normal” as possible? Our research indicates that stoppage of airline traffic and border closures, which were some of the first modes of transport to be restricted, should also be some of the last to be restored because of their critical role in spreading infections.

Governments began to restrict airline traffic at the end of January this year, and by 21 March, over half of the EU had implemented flight suspensions. Our research confirms that this was a timely and necessary step. In the early stages of the pandemic, international flight linkages were actually the main transmission channel for the virus. In fact, flight connections proved to be an even more accurate predictor of infection spread between two countries than the presence of common land borders or trade connections. As country after country enacted travel bans, our research also shows a corresponding decrease in cross-country spillovers of the virus.

In Austria, for instance, our model demonstrates that if the shutdown of cross border traffic (flight connections and car border crossings) had been delayed by only 16 days, (25 March instead of 10 March), about 7,200 additional people would have been infected (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Additional infections in Austria without border closures (Note: Shaded areas correspond to the 68th and 90th quantiles, respectively).

Additionally, our modeling shows the increased importance of flight connections over the initial period of the crisis, as seen in Figure 2. The top panel visualizes the relative importance of connectivity measures and demonstrates that, particularly in the beginning phases of the pandemic, flight connections were of the highest importance. The bottom panel shows infection spread between countries. Around the middle of March, when most border closure policies were implemented, the line drops to zero, indicating that these measures significantly reduced cross-border infections.

Figure 2: Importance of connectivity (top panel) and spatial spillovers (bottom panel)

Given the importance of air travel as a means for transmission of COVID-19, it stands to reason that governments and policymakers will have to continue to restrict air travel to prevent a second wave of the virus. As some parts of the world begin slowly to lift restrictions and ease lockdowns, while others are only now beginning to near the peak of the pandemic, it is likely that air travel will continue to be severely limited to prevent cross-border spread.

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.

IIASA, East and West Germany, and the Cold War: Researching IIASA’s History

By Liza Soutschek, doctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, Germany

Liza Soutschek shares her journey in researching the institute’s history relating to the Cold War for her PhD dissertation.

© Liza Soutschek

IIASA, Schloss Laxenburg, November 1975

Howard Raiffa, the founding director of IIASA, was about to leave Schloss Laxenburg in November 1975 to return to the USA. In his farewell address, he reflected on the institute’s first three years as an East-West research institute during the Cold War and concluded:

“My most exhilarating moments at IIASA, the times when I feel most rewarded by all our efforts, occur whenever I am present at a scientific meeting and scientists from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds argue with each other, on substantive issues, without being conscious of their roles as mathematicians or economists or management scientists or of their national identities. I will never forget those times, when [Wolf] Haefele of F.R.G. [West Germany] and [Hans] Knop of G.D.R. [East Germany] would argue heatedly on a scientific point – sometimes on the same side and at other times on opposite sides.”

As Howard Raiffa pointed out, IIASA, founded in 1972 in the wake of Cold War détente, provided an exceptional platform for scientific dialogue and exchange across borders – in particular for East and West Germans.

Intrigued by IIASA’s history

Looking back from the present day, knowing how difficult interdisciplinary collaboration between scientists from different nations and cultures can be, one question that comes up right away is: what was it like working at IIASA in the 1970s and 1980s in the context of the Cold War?

I asked myself this question when I first came across IIASA in the fall of 2017, and the spring of 2018, when I started working on a dissertation project on the institute’s East and West German history. It is done as part of a research group that examined “Cooperation and Competition in the Sciences” in case studies from a historical perspective. In my dissertation, I analyzed the relations between scientific and political actors from East and West Germany in the context of IIASA, with a focus on mechanisms of collaboration and competition at the local site as well as on wider effects in the entangled Cold War German history.

Historical research: books, dust, and coffee

Historians write books, but in order to do that we have to read hundreds of other books, look for traces in (sometimes more, sometimes less) dusty archives, and drink a lot of coffee with interesting people.

Initially my research led me to several German state and scientific archives. In the Federal Archives, for example, I found evidence of close interconnections between German science and politics during the Cold War regarding IIASA – not only in the case of the GDR, but also the FRG. Besides the intention to build a bridge between East and West, IIASA was also an arena for Cold War rivalry in the eyes of both German states. My favorite archival find were the documents of  the Max Plank Society, which was the former West German National Member Organization of IIASA.

In Germany, I also had the opportunity to talk to former West German members of the IIASA energy group in the 1970s and 1980s. Among them was Rudolf Avenhaus, who started working in the energy project under the leadership of Wolf Häfele in the summer of 1973. Over several cups of coffee, he told me about his life, what it was like to work at IIASA in those years, and about his collaboration with Willi Hätscher, one of the few East Germans in the group at that time.

A visit to IIASA and an inquiry

I finally had the chance to visit IIASA in the summer of 2019. With the help of several IIASA colleagues, I explored the IIASA archive for insights into the institute’s East-West German history. I also had the opportunity to discover more by talking to former and current IIASA employees. Two conversations I want to mention in particular, were with long-term staff members Martha Wohlwendt and Ruth Steiner, who provided an alternative view of IIASA to that of the scientists. I enjoyed my visit to the beautiful Schloss Laxenburg immensely and hope to return.

After collecting all these sources, from archival records to personal interviews, I can now begin writing an account on how cooperation and competition formed the relations between East and West Germans in the context of IIASA and thus, make IIASA’s history even better known.

© Liza Soutschek

After sharing this insight into my research, I would like to end with an inquiry. If you read this and think, “I could add something to this story!”, I would be happy to hear from you. Whether you are a former German IIASA staff member or have another connection to all of this, maybe we can add another piece to the puzzle together.

Contact:
Liza Soutschek
Institut für Zeitgeschichte München – Berlin
Leonrodstr. 46b, 80636 München, Germany
soutschek@ifz-muenchen.de

 

 

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.

More on the history of IIASA.

Research-on-demand?

By Leena Ilmola-Sheppard, senior researcher in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program.

Leena Ilmola-Sheppard discusses the value of employing novel research methods aimed at producing fast results to inform policies that address immediate problems like the current COVID-19 pandemic.

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As researchers, the majority of our work – even if it is applied research – requires deep insight and plenty of reading and writing, which sometimes takes years. When we initiate a new method development project, for example, we never know if it will eventually prove to be useful in real life, except on very rare occasions when we are willing to step out of our academic comfort zones and explore if we are able to address the challenges that decision makers are faced with right now.

I would like to encourage my colleagues and our network to try and answer the call when decision makers ask for our help. It however requires courage to produce fast results with no time for peer review, to explore the limits of our knowledge and capabilities of our tools, and to run the risk of failure.

I share two examples with you in this blog. The first one describes a situation that played out years ago, while the second one is happening today.

When the first signs of a potential refugee crisis became visible late in 2014, the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office contacted the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program (ASA) and asked whether we could produce an analysis for them. The ASA team had an idea to develop a new method for qualitative systems analysis based on an application of causal-loop-diagrams and we decided to test the approach with an expert team of 14 people from different Finnish ministries. I have to admit that the process was not exactly the best example of rigorous science, but it was able to produce results in only eight weeks.

“Experts that participated in the process from the government side accepted that the process was a pilot and exploratory in nature. In the end, the group was however able to develop a shared language for the different aspects of the refugee situation in Finland. The method produced comprised a shared understanding of the events and their interdependencies and we were able to assess the systemic impact of different policies, including unintended consequences. That was a lot in that situation,” said Sari Löytökorpi, Secretary General and Chief Specialist of the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office when reflecting on that experience recently.

The second case I want to describe here is the current coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 virus reached Finland at the end of January when a Chinese tourist was diagnosed. The first fatality in Finland was recorded on 20 March. This time, the challenge we are presented with is to look beyond the pandemic. The two research questions presented to us by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Economic Affairs are: ‘How can the resilience of the national economy be enhanced in this situation?’ and secondly ‘What will the world look like after the pandemic?’

Pekka Lindroos, Director of Foresight and Policy Planning in the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs is confident, “We know that the pandemic will have a huge impact on the economy. The global outcome of current national policy measures is a major unknown and traditional economic analysis is not able to cover the dynamics of the numerous dimensions of the rupture. That is why we are exploring a combination of novel qualitative analysis and foresight methods with researchers in the IIASA ASA Program.”

I have been working on the implementation of the systems perspective to the coronavirus situation with a few close colleagues around the world who are experts in resilience and risk. We were able to deliver the first report on Friday, 27 March. Among other things, it emphasized the role of social capital and society’s resilience. A more detailed report is currently in production.

A simple systems map (causal loop diagram) representing a preliminary understanding of the world after COVID-19 from a one country perspective.

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.