Options Magazine, Summer 2023: By opening up access to science, IIASA is sparking new insights into our planet’s health.

Luke Kirwan's quote © IIASA

Science can sometimes seem cloistered. Hedged about by obscurity and jargon; accessible only to those in the club. Even established researchers can face serious barriers, from opaque models and baffling data formats, to the high costs of subscription journals and publication fees. Over the past few years IIASA has been opening a series of doors to science, encouraging open access to publications and making data, tools, and models more accessible.

There are moral motivations. Results, data, and models should be open to those who need them; and publicly funded research should be open to the public who funded it. But open science also brings practical benefits, enabling ideas to be more widely and rapidly shared so they can make more impact. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers increased their use of preprints to communicate new science rapidly and freely, and traditional publishers followed.

“Suddenly journals were dropping their paywalls to allow everyone to read the latest research on the virus,” says Luke Kirwan, Open Science Coordinator at IIASA.

Open book

Back in the early 2000s, people recognized that the internet had brought a new opportunity for open access science. According to the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, users should have “a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works”. The movement began to build up steam around 2014, when funders such as the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program began to mandate open access to publications – and it is still gathering pace. Starting in 2026, all research receiving US government funds will have to be open access immediately.

There are many degrees of openness. Some journals offer the “diamond standard” of open access, free to all, with peer review and author copyright, but they account for only a small fraction of published research.

“Everything else puts barriers on one side or the other,” says Advancing Systems Analysis Program Director, Elena Rovenskaya.

Researchers still want to publish in established, high-impact journals, which generally impose high charges to make a paper open access. So IIASA has created an internal fund to cover these costs. It is also plugged into the Austrian Academic Library consortium, which has negotiated lower charges. As a result, around 80% of the papers in the IIASA PURE repository are openly accessible.

“Our mantra is ‘as open as possible, as closed as necessary’,” says Kirwan.

Mines of information

Ideally, data should be open too. Last year IIASA appointed a data steward for each of the six research programs, to help researchers find the right way to make their data more accessible. But an open door is no use if you don’t know how to find it or use the tools and information inside – the institute also follows the principles of “FAIR” (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable), which ensure that data can be accessed and manipulated with standard procedures and software.

A new global database on mining land use is already reaping results.

“The lack of information on mining land use had been long known,” says Victor Maus, a researcher in the Novel Data Ecosystems for Sustainability Research Group.

Maus and his colleagues at IIASA and the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) were trying to build a study on tropical mining and deforestation, and realized it would be impossible without a proper database – so they set out to create one.

Manually gathering and harmonizing the data took a huge effort.

“My team and I worked for at least three years on this project, visually inspecting and tracing polygons over thousands of satellite images. It was exhausting, but we learned a lot about what was happening on the ground – and it was exciting to virtually visit a vast range of mining sites across the globe and realize the wide variety of ecosystems that they affect,” he says.

Launched in 2020, the database covers more than 34,000 mines worldwide. Data is available in GeoPackage and GeoTIFF formats, which are straightforward to handle using any open Geographic Information System (GIS) software.

Researchers outside IIASA have used the data to investigate the ecological footprint of global metal production, identify hotspots of mining biodiversity loss, and map sources of methane emission. Maus’s team returned to their original research question, identifying the direct and indirect deforestation driven by mining in the tropics.

“This is important because mining is expanding fast in tropical regions, which are key for biodiversity conservation and global climate stability,” he says.  

Open Science Quote 2 © IIASA


Unlocking the tool shed

Some IIASA models and tools are now freely available to download. Other models have a contact who can give permission, or decide to withhold access if there’s a risk of misuse, or where a model uses an old dataset under strict copyright.

The IIASA Community Water Model (CWatM) was designed to be open access from the start. The model and its discussion forum are freely available on GitHub. Interactions with the community of users have helped in developing online tutorials, says Mikhail Smilovic, a researcher in the Water Security Research Group. CWatM’s accessibility has enabled the scaleWAYS project to run workshops investigating sustainable rice and fodder production; while the FUSE consortium has used the model to explore issues of urban food, water, and energy in three living labs, involving a wide range of stakeholders. CWatM is among several IIASA models that are opening up by building an international community of users.

Eyes on Earth

An even wider collaboration is the IIASA Geo-Wiki, which since 2010 has been welcoming people to analyze their home planet. Experts and the members of the public can classify images from satellites, drones, and other sources, which are sometimes used to train deep-learning algorithms. The wiki has illuminated issues such as land use and food security, and recently helped to identify drivers of deforestation. On images of random locations within the tropics, users tagged the presence of tell-tale features such as roads, buildings, and pastures, which could then be correlated with forest loss. Participants were given training, and even offered prizes for the best contributions. A 2022 study based on this work found crucial differences between drivers of deforestation in different continents; and revealed that deforestation rates in protected areas can sometimes be higher than outside them.

“We are also working on a tree biomass app,” says Steffen Fritz, principal researcher in the Novel Data Ecosystems for Sustainability Research Group. “This will allow citizens to collect information on trees, which should give us a much better picture of the spatial distribution of tree biomass and species.”

Citizen and space science meet again in the Open Earth Monitor Cyberinfrastructure (OEMC) project. OEMC grapples with the petabytes of data stored in NASA and the European Space Agency’s satellite archives, with the aim of using this data to inform policy – especially to support implementation of the European Green Deal.

“The challenge is how to bring big Earth observation data to decision makers efficiently, and without exposing them to overwhelming complexity,” says Milutin Milenković, a researcher in the Novel Data Ecosystems for Sustainability Research Group.

The project is creating a set of open-source tools to generate maps and other visualizations of environmental change, revealing the effects of different strategies, and where best to concentrate efforts on forests, biodiversity, flooding, and pollution. These tools are developed in collaboration with users from the start, to ensure they meet people’s needs – and IIASA is central to this process, as it leads stakeholder engagement for OEMC. In October, IIASA will be hosting a workshop at an OEMC meeting to find out how in-situ citizen-science data can be used to train and validate machine learning models exploring deforestation, forest management, and crop mapping.

Open Science Quote 3 © IIASA

A slew of scenarios

In 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Working Group III report on climate mitigation pointed out our rapidly narrowing options to limit warming to 1.5°C. It drew on thousands of modelled scenarios, exploring emissions from industry, land use, and other sectors, on national to global scales. To navigate this multiverse of possible futures, IIASA developed the AR6 Scenario Explorer – a database and website where researchers could upload scenarios for assessment by the report authors. The Scenario Explorer includes open-source analysis software that researchers and policymakers can use to focus on exactly what they want to know – be it pathways for land use in South America, or near-term global investment needed to meet 1.5°C – and to plot the results in clear graphs and images.

“This community data resource underpins key findings from the AR6 report, including the calculation of carbon budgets that inform climate policy across the world,” says Edward Byers, a senior researcher in the Integrated Assessment and Climate Change Research Group.

Are there any other avenues of open science to explore in future? Kirwan says that IIASA could do more in the field of science communication.

“This is far more valuable than people give it credit for,” he says. “Open science is not just about open data and publications, it is also about providing insight into the scientific process.”

By Stephen Battersby