Will mining the Amazon really bring economic development for Brazil?

By Fanni Daniella Szakal, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

In an attempt to foster economic development for Brazil, the government is planning to open up indigenous and protected areas for mining. But will this truly lead to economic development for the country? 2021 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant, Sebastian Luckeneder is using spatial modeling to find out.

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As the largest rainforest on the planet, the Amazon harbors the highest biodiversity of all ecosystems and is home to many indigenous tribes. It is also literally sitting on a goldmine of natural resources. There are plans in the works to open up protected and indigenous areas of the rainforest to mining activities, which is expected to bring more wealth and development for the country, but at the same time, it will also pose a threat to the environment and indigenous communities.

At first glance, the issue looks like the classic trade-off between economic growth versus environmental and social disruption. In reality however, mining affects social, environmental, and economic spheres both directly and indirectly, creating a complex network of interactions that potentially defy the current dogma.

Mining relies heavily on machines while creating relatively few jobs in comparison to the investment of capital it requires. In addition, mining companies are often large international corporations, which means that most of the profits gained from mining operations in a particular country end up outside that country’s borders.

“One could say that just the very few benefit from extractive activities, whereas many have to pay the cost,” says Sebastian Luckeneder, a 2021 YSSP participant at IIASA, when referring to the environmental destruction, disruption of livelihoods, and displacement of indigenous communities that mining would bring about.

As a second-year PhD candidate at the Institute for Ecological Economics of Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), Luckeneder is studying the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of mining activities. At IIASA, he used spatial modeling to understand how mining and land use affect regional economic growth in Brazil in the hopes of finding the best economic solution for the country.

Using GDP growth as a proxy for economic development, he looked at the impacts of mining and other types of land use between 2000 and 2020. The model incorporates data on mining, agriculture, and land-use change, as well as other socioeconomic factors, such as employment and infrastructure for about 5,500 municipalities in Brazil.

The study is as complex as it sounds: Luckeneder’s main challenge is to set up a theoretical framework that depicts how the environmental and socioeconomic factors influence each other. Once his comprehensive model is complete, he hopes to get a clear picture of how mining affects the Brazilian economy.

He suspects that while mining activities would bring some economic gains, these might not be sustainable, as the environmental and social upheaval that follow the opening of a mine could negatively impact development in the long-run.

While economic development is important, in the current climate crisis, decisions to enable activities that lead to deforestation cannot be taken lightly. Luckeneder hopes that his results will be used to inform the political debate in Brazil and support policy decisions by the way of science.

Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters

By Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo from the IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis Program

Asjad Naqvi and Irene Monasterolo discuss a framework they developed to assess how natural disasters cascade across socioeconomic systems.

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The 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics, was awarded to the topic of “complex systems”, highlighting the need for a better understanding of non-linear interactions that take place within natural and socioeconomic systems. In our paper titled “Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework”, recently published in Nature Scientific Reports, we highlight one such application of complex systems.

In this paper, we develop a framework for assessing how natural disasters, for example, earthquakes and floods, cascade across socioeconomic systems. We propose that in order to understand post-shock outcomes, an economic structure can be broken down into multiple network layers. Multi-layer networks are a relatively new methodology, mostly stemming from applications in finance after the 2008 financial crisis, which starts with the premise that nodes, or locations in our case, interact with other nodes through various network layers. For example, in our study, we highlight the role of a supply-side production layer, where the flows are trade networks, and a demand-side household layer, which provides labor, and the flows are migration flows.

Figure 1: A multi-layer network structure

In this two-layer structure, the nodes interact, not only within, but across layers as well, forming a co-evolving demand and supply structure that feeds back across each other. The interactions are derived from economic literature, which also allow us to integrate behavioral responses to distress scenarios. This, for example, includes household coping mechanisms for consumption smoothing, and firms’ response to market signals by reshuffling supply chains. The price signals drive flows, which allows the whole system to stabilize.

We applied the framework to an agriculture-dependent economy, typically found in low-income disaster-prone regions. We simulated various flood-like shock scenarios that reduce food output in one part of the network. We then tracked how this shock spreads to the rest of the network over space and time.

Figure 2: Evolution of vulnerability over time

Our results show that the transition phase is cyclical and depends on the network size, distance from the epi-center of the shock, and node density. Within this cyclical adjustment new vulnerabilities in terms of “food insecurity” can be created. Then, we introduce a new measure, the Vulnerability Rank, or VRank, to synthesize multi-layer risks into a single index.

Our framework can help inform and design policies, aimed at building resilience to disasters by accounting for direct and indirect cascading impacts. This is especially crucial for regions where the fiscal space is limited and timing of response is critical.


Naqvi, A. & Monasterolo, I. (2021). Assessing the cascading impacts of natural disasters in a multi-layer behavioral network framework. Scientific Reports 11 e20146. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17496]

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.

Warming waters, evolution, and the future for fisheries policy

By Neema Tavakolian, 2021 IIASA Science Communication Fellow 

Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant Lyndsie Wszola explores how human interactions with warming freshwater systems have affected the evolution of fish species through the lens of the North American walleye. 

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The effects of climate change have intensified over the past few years, especially in our oceans, and human based activities contributing to it are now being taken more seriously. While the warming of our oceans is indeed troubling, many forget that freshwater systems are also being influenced, and that this is affecting the growth and evolution of the species that reside in them.

2021 YSSP participant Lyndsie Wszola wants to explore changes in freshwater systems using human-natural modeling systems at IIASA.

© Lyndsie Wszola

Growing up with a conservation officer father, Wszola is a second-generation conservationist. Knowing she wanted to enter this field at an early age, she realized that she had to get into research and academia first. Her main interests while studying at the University of Nebraska have been the interactions between humans and wildlife.

While researching the relationships between hunters and ring-necked pheasants, she discovered an affinity for quantitative research. This curiosity went even further after she discovered literature on harvest induced evolution and mathematical ecology specifically pertaining to fish populations. Together, this initial desire to explore human and wildlife interactions and her newfound interest in mathematical ecology, led Wszola to take a closer look at North American freshwater systems and how we as humans are influencing its ecology. Her research specifically delves into the growth and evolutionary changes seen in the North American walleye (Sander vitreus) – a popular fish in Canada and the United States. The reason for its fame is its palatable taste as a freshwater fish and its status among anglers, making it both a commercially and recreationally fished species.

Walleye was chosen as the subject of Wszola’s research for many reasons. First, walleye, like many fish, are ectotherms meaning that their body processes and behaviors are directly linked to their body temperature, which is in turn directly linked to the temperature of the water. Unlike other fish however, there is already plenty of research and data on the relationship between the walleye’s growth and temperature. This information makes it much easier to simulate the walleye’s eco-evolutionary growth dynamics in the context of human driven harvests in warming waters. Wszola will also be working with very large datasets spanning multiple latitudes ranging from Ontario, Canada down to Nebraska, USA. The datasets include up to six million fish with four million of those being walleye.

“My goal is to model the influence of temperature on fish harvests based on size. Due to their ectotherm nature, we can observe the changes in body size in annual harvests. As waters warm, walleye grow much faster. We also know that intensely harvested fish often evolve to reach maturation at smaller sizes. When coupled with rising temperatures, this relationship between harvest induced and temperature induced evolution can be fascinating, as we now have two sources working together to change the growth evolution of this fish,” she explains.

Due to warming temperatures, many natural resources are at stake with some of the most sensitive being aquatic in nature. Research like this is important as it allows us to look at our relationships with the environment to be able to react accordingly.

“I hope that the research I do yields fascinating enough results so that from a practical standpoint, future fisheries policies can include climate change dynamics in addition to fish and human dynamics,” Wszola 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.

Why we need basic sciences for sustainable development more than ever

By Michel Spiro, President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) and President of the Steering Committee for the proclamation of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development in 2022 (IYBSSD 2022)

A consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations’ plans to declare 2022 the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development are underway. Michael Spiro makes the case for why the world needs this now more than at any time in the past.

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For almost a year and a half now, the world has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But how much worse could the situation have been without the progress and results produced for decades, even centuries, by curiosity-driven scientific research?

We deplore the many deaths due to COVID-19, and the future is still very uncertain, especially with the detection of new variants, some of which are spreading more quickly. But how could we have known that the infection was caused by a virus, what this virus looks like and what its genetic sequence and variations are without basic research?

Viruses were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to the work of Frederick Twort, Félix d’Hérelle, and many others. The first electron microscope was built in the 1930s by Ernst Ruska and Max Knoll; and DNA sequencing began in the mid-1970s, notably with research by the groups of Frederick Sanger and Walter Gilbert.

Such a list could of course go on and on, with basic research at the root of countless tests, treatments, vaccines, and epidemiological modeling exercises. We even owe high-speed, long-distance communications, which allow us to coordinate the fight against the pandemic and reduce interruptions in education, economic activities, and even the practice of science, to the discovery and study of electromagnetic waves and optic fibers during the 19th century, and the development of algorithms and computers codes during the 20th century. The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder (so harsh and brutal that we would have preferred to have been spared) of how much we rely on the continuous development of basic sciences for a balanced, sustainable, and inclusive development of the planet.

On many other issues, basic sciences have an important contribution to make to progress towards a sustainable world for all, as outlined in Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. They provide the essential means to address major challenges such as universal access to food, energy, and sanitation. They enable us to understand the impacts of the nearly eight billion people currently living on the planet, on the climate, life on Earth, and on aquatic environments, and to act to limit and reduce these impacts.

Indeed, unlike our use of natural resources, the development of the basic sciences is sustainable par excellence. From generation to generation, it builds up a reservoir of knowledge that subsequent generations can use to apply to the problems they will face, which we may not even know about today.

The International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) will focus on these links between basic sciences and the Sustainable Development Goals. It is proposed to be organized in 2022 by a consortium of international scientific unions and scientific organizations* led by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IIUPAP) with the recommendation of a resolution voted by the UNESCO General Conference during its 40th session in 2019. Over 50 national and international science academies and learned societies and around 30 Nobel Prize laureates and Fields Medalists also support this initiative. The Dominican Republic has agreed to propose a resolution for the promulgation of the IYBSSD during the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, beginning in September 2021.

We very much hope that scientists, and all people interested in basic science, will mobilize around the planet and take this opportunity to convince all stakeholders – the general public, teachers, company managers, and policymakers – that through a basic understanding of nature, inclusive (especially by empowering more women) and collaborative well-informed actions will be more effective for the global common interest. As IIASA is one of the consortium’s founding partners, we especially invite all IIASA scientists, alumni, and colleagues they are collaborating with to create or join national IYBSSD 2022 committees to organize events and activities during this international year.

More information, as well as communication material, can be found at www.iybssd2022.org. This will also be shared through social media accounts (look for @iybssd2022 on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram). You are also invited to subscribe to the Newsletter here.

* Consortium members

The International Union of Crystallography (IUCr); the International Mineralogical Association (IMA); the International Mathematical Union (IMU); the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS); the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG); the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC); the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IUHPST); the International Union of Materials Research Societies (IUMRS); the International Union for Vacuum Science, Technique, and Applications (IUVSTA); the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); the French Research Institute for Development (IRD); the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA); the European Physical Society (EPS); the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR); the Nuclear Physics European Collaboration Committee (NuPECC); the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP); the International Science Council (ISC); Rencontres du Vietnam; the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR); the Square Kilometre Array Organization (SKAO); and  SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East).

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.

Enhancing science systems and bouncing forward sustainably from COVID-19

By Husam Ibrahim, International Science Council (ISC)

The IIASA-ISC Consultative Science platform has engaged transdisciplinary global thought leaders to produce four reports that focus on a more sustainable pathway to a post COVID-19 world. This blog post looks at the report on Strengthening Science Systems.

Credit: Adam Islaam – IIASA

Science has spoken reason to power and politics, expanded open science practices, and found a vaccine in record time during this pandemic, yet perceptions of how science has responded overall to the current crisis still vary. There is a broad consensus that there is considerable room for improvement in science systems in the general context of rapidly evolving global exogenous shocks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a cautionary tale about the importance and necessity of science: we will face crisis, we know that, and we will best address it through science, but science itself stumbles along and science needs to be more humble, be better educated and not only communicate their knowledge but also communicate the limitation of their knowledge so that science systems can move towards a better frontier.”

– David Kaplan, Senior Research Specialist, ISC 

In 2020, IIASA and the International Science Council (ISC) combined their strengths and expertise to define and design sustainability pathways that will help all levels of global governance be better prepared and more resilient in protecting from future systemic shocks.

In these testing times, policymakers and the general public have looked to science for insight, reliable solutions, and actionable advice. The Strengthening Science Systems report addresses how science systems can be better prepared when an inevitable crisis hits again.

The report puts forward a large number of recommendations, grouped under five interrelated major transformative changes:

Strengthen transdisciplinary research and networking on critical risks and systems resilience

As seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, risks can spread globally regardless of their origin. It is in the interests of all countries to work together and provide support to one another. Most notably, developed countries need to help further strengthen scientific capacities with financial support, technology support and technology transfer for developing countries.

On the other hand, while risks may be global, the manner in which they play out and particularly the way in which different societies respond, show considerable variation. Local scientific capacity has the ability to address the local context and develop effective strategies to address risk. This will allow local scientists to put knowledge on disaster risks at the core of disaster risk reduction policies.

Enhance communication of scientific knowledge, public understanding, and trust in science

Trust in science and in the recommendations emanating from scientists are key to the effectiveness of science-based policies. This is especially important as science denial and misinformation have increased during the pandemic. Communication, transparency, and broad public understanding of how science works are three foundations which will enhance trust in science.

Scientists themselves should therefore be incentivized to play a more active role in combating misinformation in their fields, as they are best equipped with the facts. Alongside that, easily accessible sources of scientific results that are simpler for a mass audience to understand should be created in a wider array of languages.

Enhance knowledge diffusion within the science system

Peer-review systems have been shown to be somewhat inadequate in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Peer-review systems need to be more agile, international, rigorous, and inclusive in terms of access and avoiding bias if science is to meet the challenges of future crises.

International organizations of science, including the ISC and UNESCO, can take a lead in devising a more effective system of peer review through dialogue with international disciplinary bodies, national academies, publishers, and national research councils.

Increase the capacity of the science system to respond rapidly to crises with high-quality research

Some countries lack adequate disaster research institutions. These institutes cannot be created in a short period of time and need prior infrastructural efforts, so there needs to be ample support and funding of smaller research institutions in advance of possible disasters. Collaborative efforts between big and small research institutes on a global and local scale are highly recommended. Governments also need researchers who can be on standby and they need to allocate funds that are easy to access during a crisis.

Improve the quality and efficacy of science-policy interfaces at national, regional, and global levels

Science advice has moved to center stage when dealing with policies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has challenged national science–policy systems. Lessons have been learned about how science can become a more effective input into policy. This involves further international scientific cooperation among institutions engaged in science-policy advice, to enhance the quality of science inputs to policy.

International collaboration allows for sharing of evidence and the emergence of a scientific consensus. This consensus can then be communicated to policymakers who, in turn, need to interact more with the wider academic community to systematically review their country’s policies.

These are some of the conclusions from the five lessons on interrelated transformative changes for the science system cited in the report. They show three axes of improvement that are required to ensure that science can react more efficiently to such exogenous shocks: increased agility, enhanced reliability, and a more effective science-policy-society interface. The main overarching objective is to simultaneously improve all three axes, thereby moving science systems to a new frontier.

Strengthening Science Systems

Read the full report

Read the one-page summary


You can also watch the discussion on Strengthening Science Systems as part of the launch event for the Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World, which explores the key themes of Sustainable Energy, Governance for Sustainability, Strengthening Science Systems and Resilient Food Systems.


This blog post was first published on the website of the International Science Council. Read the original article 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.