09 June 2016

Divided we fall

Options Magazine Summer 2016: Reports on the ground speak of separate camps of scientists and policymakers as “tectonic plates—huge, rigid, and engaged in a never‑ending clash.” Yet science and policy must work together if we are to achieve a sustainable future for humanity. How can we get the very best from science‑policy collaborations?

© Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime

© Rawpixelimages | Dreamstime

IIASA researchers Ping Yowargana, Markus Amann, and Stefan Hochrainer‑Stigler work on very different topics—from land use, to air pollution, to natural disasters—but they all have one thing in common: they work at the forefront of the science‑policy boundary. Here they share some of what they have learned over the years of working with policymakers.

Sustainability in the Tropics

The IIASA Tropical Futures Initiative (TFI), inspired by the institute’s REDD‑PAC project, addresses tropical deforestation by bridging policy and science to develop sustainable land‑use strategies. Under REDD‑PAC, IIASA researchers trained Brazilian modelers to use the Global Biosphere Management Model and the government used the results to produce the country’s land‑based climate pledge, which outlines post‑2020 climate actions.

PY: I work face to face with both policymakers and local researchers in Indonesia and rather than an interface between science and policy, I would call it a joint effort. The idea is to build the research capacity of local institutions linked to policymaking; we show them how the tools that have been developed here at IIASA can be useful but also listen to their requirements so that we can use their insights to enrich the models.

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In my experience, policymakers do see the value in scientific advice; they are often very interested when we show what our models can do. But the questions they have tend to be very specific, they want a number for a certain policy target, for example. Then all we can say is: “We have to see what kind of data you have, then refine the model, then calibrate it, and probably in a couple of years we’ll have something for you.”

The way we work in TFI is to collaborate with local institutes that can provide the scientific standards IIASA models require, but focus on the specific issues policymakers need answers for. That gives countries a chance to build their own capacity in using and refining the models for local use.

Both policymakers and scientists need to recognize that they need to make a serious commitment to the process to make it a success. The biggest problem we have in Indonesia, for instance, is achieving an active collaboration with government representatives. Sometimes this is a struggle, not because of lack of understanding or willingness, but because of constraints like government budget cycles or lack of research funding.

If you can get these things right it can pay off. The work in Brazil produced the ultimate goal: a strong policy that the government knew it was capable of delivering.

Shaping air quality policy

The IIASA Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model explores the synergies and trade‑offs between control of air pollution and mitigation of greenhouse gases.

GAINS is integral to both international and European policy on air quality. In 2013, for instance, the European Commission introduced a new clean air policy package based on GAINS scenarios. The new policies will have avoided 58,000 premature deaths, saved 123,000 km2 of land from nitrogen pollution, and protected 19,000 km2 of forest from acidification by 2030.

MA: To make the science‑policy process work, one should remember that it is a long‑term process. Talking and listening are both equally important, but building trust is crucial. Scientists often think they have the solution and they go and tell the policymakers: here it is. But in many cases they are not addressing the problems policymakers want to explore. You need to listen and respond; it takes a long time to gain acceptance and credibility.

IIASA is in a unique position to facilitate this dialogue because we are independent and neutral but we also have a network that spans many countries. Although this network is often referenced in terms of scientific advantage it is also vital for policy.

Working in science‑policy is more interesting than pure science, in my opinion. There are no exact recipes for success but my advice is: learn to put your scientific understanding in context. There might be compromises you didn’t know about.

Bouncing back from natural disasters

Madagascar suffers an average of two tropical cyclones every three years, and in the wake of cyclone Gafilo, which killed at least 363 people, the country sought assistance from IIASA. The institute used its Catastrophe Simulation (CATSIM) model, to support a major disaster risk management study by the government disaster agency which led to new policies to help reduce disaster impacts. In this way CATSIM provides countries around the world with sound guidance to help them bounce back after all kinds of natural disasters.

SH: The CATSIM workshops give scientists and policymakers a chance to meet face to face; we give them the model and teach them how to use and adapt it. The goal is that they will take it and refine it to meet their own contexts and needs.

Communicating your results is a key part of success. Although that might seem easy it actually needs a lot of thought. What are the best ways of explaining risk, for instance, or probability? It is vital that we make these concepts clear. Our results might indicate that policymakers invest a lot of money in risk management, for instance, and they have every right to ask: why am I spending money on this and not other priorities?

As a scientist, you need to know the limits of your model. There are a lot of difficult decisions which cannot be evaluated in simple monetary terms. CATSIM is designed to be broad enough so policymakers can contribute their own ideas but concrete enough that they can make a meaningful decision based on all the information.

Trust is also key, and neutral institutions like IIASA are very much needed to build this as they can take a non‑profit oriented, purely scientific view.

The most important quality for a scientist going into science‑policy work is open‑mindedness; remember it’s a learning experience for you too.

Text by Daisy Brickhill

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Last edited: 14 June 2016


Ping Yowargana

Research Scholar

Ecosystems Services and Management

T +43(0) 2236 807 462

Markus Amann

Program Director

Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases

T +43(0) 2236 807 432

Stefan Hochrainer-Stigler

Senior Research Scholar

Risk and Resilience

T +43(0) 2236 807 517



2016 Bonn climate change conference

16 May 2016 - 26 May 2016

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313