Options Winter 2020: Raya Muttarak joined the institute in September 2011 and is currently the IIASA World Population Deputy Program Director. She has been appointed Population and Just Societies Program Director as of 1 January 2021.

picture of a woman © Monika Bauer | IIASA

Q Your research focuses on population, the
environment, and sustainable development.
What caused you to pursue research in this area?

A In 2012, I had the opportunity to explore the role of
education in reducing vulnerability to environmental
change in Thailand. That same year, a powerful
undersea earthquake hit Indonesia, and a tsunami
warning was issued for the country's southern coastal
towns. This led me to start collecting data to look at
how populations are affected by natural disasters and how this changes depending on various factors. We found a consistent association between individual, household, and community level education in reducing vulnerability. This fascinated me and motivated me to continue looking into the spillover effect of education and how the impact of environmental change varies across population subgroups.

Q What impact do you hope to have with your research?
A I work on these issues in the hope of making positive changes in affected local communities. My research is aimed at impacting policy in a way that, when implemented, makes an effective contribution. Colleagues and I, for example, conducted research on the impact of floods on childhood undernutrition in India. Our results can help the Indian government to pinpoint which vulnerable subgroups of the population should be targeted for policy interventions.

It is also very important to me to mentor those beginning their careers in research. I hope my work inspires young researchers, introduces them to systems thinking, and through the support that I enthusiastically provide, empowers them on their journey.

Q What aspect of the research in your field do you find most important?
A It is important to factor in the contribution from demography, sociology, and other social sciences in climate and environmental research. For instance, sociological work is useful in highlighting the complex interplay between different drivers of migration and thus enhance our understanding in terms of the way and extent to which environmental change influences migration. Likewise, demography has a methodological tool to forecast population size and structure in the future, thus allowing us to match future climate with the projected demographic and socioeconomic conditions.

Q You have been appointed Population and Just Societies Program Director. What is your vision for this appointment?
A The new IIASA strategy lays a framework for the scientific work at IIASA to embrace equity and justice. This is an opportunity to advance our scientific inputs in transformations towards sustainable and resilient societies that ensures equity and leaves no one behind.

Such endeavors can only be achieved by working together in systems analysis that consider the interlinkages between natural, social, and economic systems. I hope to see the implementation of crosscutting projects that enable us to concretely do so.

By Monika Bauer