Options Magazine, Summer 2022: As it forges the links of systems science, IIASA can also help to connect the world in a network of science diplomacy.

We need to talk. International diplomacy is vital for a peaceful and sustainable planet – and alongside traditional diplomatic channels, science has a special role to play. Science can bring decision makers with clashing views into the same room to tackle common problems. It can help to reveal the bigger picture beyond narrow national interests. It can bring universal truths and cool calculation into the overheated arena of politics.

IIASA is the child of diplomacy. A deal forged in 1967 between US President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin led to the institute’s creation in 1972, when 12 member nations came together to found a new scientific institution that bridged the Cold War divide, working on solutions to common problems. This is a perfect example of diplomacy acting in the interest of science, despite the clashing politics of the time.

Today, ambassadors and other diplomats posted to Vienna often visit IIASA. Here they can see how participating in IIASA projects may benefit their countries, for example, by solving problems they have in common with others. IIASA has consultative or observer status in many intergovernmental organizations, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the United Nations Environment Programme, and it contributes scientific findings to many international negotiations. This also helps garner support for science-informed solutions.

A broader aim is to bring countries together to solve shared problems on a multinational or global scale. This kind of science diplomacy is inherent in the majority of work at IIASA – a natural consequence of the “International” and the “Applied”.

“It is there in any project that is transnational and helps build trust or resolves tensions,” says Sergey Sizov, Science Diplomacy Officer at IIASA. For instance, IIASA research into risk insurance informs the Loss and Damage Mechanism to support developing countries in the face of climate hazards, so it can help reduce the growing climate tensions between rich and poor nations.

Some of the systems analysis methods that IIASA has developed over the past half century turn out to be excellent catalysts for diplomacy. This was evident in the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land (ISWEL) Project, which focused on shared water resources in the river basins of the Indus and Zambezi. These rivers face many demands, and national interests are often at odds.

"It is there in any project that is transnational and helps build trust or resolves tensions."

“Say one country puts in a hydroelectric plant, that would affect everyone downstream,” explains Barbara Willaarts, a Research Scholar in the Water Security Research Group. “So we need to find sustainable solutions to meet everyone’s water, energy, and land demands.”

Partnering with the Global Environment Facility and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, IIASA used a modeling framework to analyze water, energy, and land use for various future climate and development paths, so researchers could anticipate where and when extreme scarcity might occur, and explore possible solutions.The project involved a wide range of stakeholders from each country through workshops and consultations. This made the project an engine for science diplomacy.

“An innovative aspect of the ISWEL project was soft tools: serious games and policy simulations. Learning-by-doing with these tools helped people with different values and priorities to explore problems together,” says Willaarts. “We managed to create a very constructive process, where despite the complexity and political sensitivity, stakeholders were very engaged and willing to explore solutions to common problems.”

IIASA is neutral ground, a depoliticized venue where people can meet and talk about the problems they face. Its members are not governments, but scientific institutions. When a transboundary issue is funneled through science, rather than political dialogue, there may be more chance of a rational, peaceful outcome. Debate can be less about preconceptions and more about evidence. If normal diplomatic relations break down, science can offer an alternative path.

“Sometimes diplomats are not comfortable having direct meetings with their counterparts, but they are ready to have unofficial contact on the margins of a larger gathering organized by a neutral third party,” notes Sizov. “Then scientists can build a bridge through unofficial channels.”

Shared global challenges © Adam Islaam | IIASA

For example, by the 1990s diplomats across 33 European governments had forged an international environmental treaty that helped bring an end to Europe’s acid rain problem. The agreement was made possible by an IIASA scientific model that enabled scientists, policymakers, and diplomats to explore options to tackle air pollution, all in the neutral setting of an international scientific organization. This also shows applied systems science being diplomatic in the sense of tactful and sensitive; not aiming to dictate policy, but rather to give options, showing the possibilities if you choose this or that policy pathway.

More can be done, of course. To spur on the institute’s science diplomacy activities, the 2021-2030 Strategy sets a formal mandate to “build trust and help divergent views to jointly confront problems of global interest by engaging with decision makers, providing scientific insights for policymaking, developing cooperative strategies and, thereby, strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations for sustainable development.”

A new document, the Science Diplomacy Strategy, will lay out how to make this happen. “One aim will be to scan for new threats to international relations in areas where systems analysis could provide common ground,” says Iain Stewart, former co-chair of the IIASA Science Diplomacy Strategy Working Group.

This summer at the IIASA 50th anniversary science diplomacy event: The Need for International Scientific Cooperation and Multilateralism, policymakers, researchers, and high-ranking diplomats will discuss how international scientific cooperation can unlock discoveries, strengthen international relations, and contribute evidence-based solutions to negotiations.

Diplomacy may have its limits, but surely we need this kind of cool-headed collaboration more than ever.

“Shared global challenges will not be resolved unilaterally, and no nation will achieve a sustainable future in isolation,” says IIASA Director General Albert van Jaarsveld. “It will require negotiated compromises among multilateral partners to make lasting progress against the universal global change challenges we face.”

By Stephen Battersby

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