The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis - a Gem of Science Diplomacy

bridges vol. 26, July 2010 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter

{enclose Vol.26_Neureiter.mp3}

Norman P. Neureiter

It was not called science diplomacy in 1972, but that is what it was. The creation of IIASA – the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis – in an aging former Habsburg palace in Laxenburg, Austria, donated by the Austrian Government, was science diplomacy in action. It was a US initiative to use the emerging discipline of systems analysis as a medium for peaceful engagement with the Soviet Union, even at the time when thousands of nuclear weapons on each side threatened both nations with instant destruction. It was the MAD era – when both sides relied on the doctrine of mutual assured destruction to keep themselves safe.

It had taken six years to get final agreement to establish IIASA – not just from the US and USSR, but also from the 10 other Western and East Bloc countries that were the original members. McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, led the effort for the US, and Jermen Gvishiani, son-in-law of Prime Minister Kosygin and deputy director of the top Soviet science policy body – the State Committee on Science and Technology – carried the ball for the Soviets. The first Director of IIASA, Harvard Business School Professor Howard Raiffa (now emeritus), has posted a fascinating history of the startup on the IIASA Web site. There have also been stormy moments in IIASA’s 38 years; membership peaked at 18 countries, but it was a remarkably successful instrument of science engagement between East and West. The research tackled the large global issues of concern to both East and West such as energy, population, climate change, etc. The results have been widely acclaimed.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} But when the Wall came down and the Soviet Union became Russia, that core motive of East-West détente dimmed, and yet the great problems remained in what I call "the new world disorder."  What had been the East-West orientation of IIASA has turned 90 degrees toward a North-South focus - addressing the great challenges of the 21st century from a politically neutral Austrian location, with scientists from many parts of the world working together.  The research program is built around three core themes:  environment and natural resources, population and society, and energy and technology.  China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, South Africa, and South Korea have joined, and the present total is 16 member countries and one observer country.  Several have dropped out, usually for financial reasons.  

I recently attended a meeting of IIASA's governing body (the Council), with members from each national member organization (in the US it is the National Academy of Sciences).  Concurrently, we held a meeting of the trustees of the IIASA Endowment Fund, of which I am the chairman.  Our goal is to build an endowment fund, which will provide flexibility to support IIASA-sponsored research independent of the funding from member country dues or research contracts from governments.  I believe there is great value in nurturing this multinational institution that applies its analytical and modeling skills to the great global challenges facing all of humanity.  

The present director is Professor Detlof von Winterfeldt, a German-born American, who is presently on leave from the University of Southern California (USC), where he was professor of industrial and systems engineering and of public policy and management.  He also cofounded, at USC, the first university-based center of excellence established by the Department of Homeland Security, called the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).  A goal of IIASA is to become effective in providing the results of its research as completely objective, politically neutral, scientific advice to national governments and international institutions.

The other most involved American scientist in IIASA is the highly distinguished theoretical ecologist, Professor Simon Levin of Princeton University.  He is head of the US National Member Organization (NMO) for IIASA and vice chairman of the IIASA Council.  Staff support for the NMO is at the US National Academy of Sciences, where Dr. Maggie Goud Collins is program director.  

On the final day of the Council meeting, an Austrian friend had invited me to attend an evening science dinner, without providing any details.  It turned out to be one of the most important Austrian science events of the year and prompted me to write this commentary.  It was hosted by the Austrian Science Fund and the Ministry of Science and Research and was the presentation ceremony for Austria's most prestigious scientific award - the Wittgenstein Prize - often called the Austrian Nobel, as well as for the START awards for six young researchers based on their accomplishments to date and the belief that more financial independence in research will help them to become real leaders in their respective fields.  It was a marvelous evening, a mixture of majesty in the achievements and true Austrian Gemütlichkeit in the ceremony.    

The Wittgenstein Prize is a very big deal - providing €1.5 million over five years to a scientist to carry on his or her research.  This year for the first time it went to a social scientist, demographer Wolfgang Lutz, whom I have known for years as the IIASA population expert.  He had studied mathematics, philosophy, and theology in Munich, did his Diploma in social and economic statistics in Vienna, and then very rapidly earned master's and doctoral degrees in demography at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Austria.  In accepting his prize, he said that on his return it was only in IIASA, where systems analysis was being applied to large societal issues, that he had found a home where his own ideas on demography could be developed - and where he eventually became director of IIASA's World Population Program.  He now divides his time among IIASA, the directorship of the Vienna Institute of Demography at the Austrian Academy of Sciences , and his position as professor of social statistics at the Vienna University for Economics and Business (Wirtschaftsuniversität).  His plans for the prize money are to build a Research Center for International Human Capital, a center of excellence for interdisciplinary research that will bring demographers and economists together to address some of the great global challenges.  His pioneering efforts on the relationship between population and climate change, as well as between broad public education and national economic well-being, promise a great future for this Center.  From an institutional base that could only be found at IIASA when he returned to Austria, Wolfgang Lutz has made Vienna into a hot spot for demographic studies and application of demographic techniques and analyses to broader areas of social science.   

In addition to the Wittgenstein Prize, six young researchers, three men and three women each in a different specialty, received START prizes - special awards for promising young scientists to support their future research.  There was an excellent speech from the deeply interested and impressive young woman, Minister for Science and Research Dr. Beatrix Karl, who presented the awards.  There was a wonderful human touch to the evening as well.  One of the young researchers had small child along, another was celebrating her birthday, and a third was there with his wife of only a day or two.  Each of these celebrants received a blazing sparkler and words of special congratulation from Professor Christoph Kratky, president of the Austrian Science Fund, who presided over the festivities.    

Exactly 45 years ago I was in the US Foreign Service and serving as deputy scientific attaché in the US Embassy in Bonn, Germany, with responsibility also for Austria.  I made one trip to Vienna during the two years that I was there, to see what was happening in science and technology in Austria.  My conclusion was - truly nichts.  But how things have changed!  What a difference there is today!  There is excitement, momentum, and a real commitment to build up science, research, and technology in Austria and to do it in a global context.  That is already apparent in the very effective Austrian science and technology cooperation with the EU, and we in the US welcome the current Austrian efforts to deepen cooperative ties with our country.  Austria has been a good host for IIASA, but I still feel that IIASA is not as widely known in the Austrian research community as it should be.  That is why the award to Wolfgang Lutz is so important for IIASA as well as for the development of his new Center.  It is also worth noting that something that started many years ago as an East-West science diplomacy initiative between two hostile nations has resulted in some important new science, has contributed to the development of science and research in Austria, and now with its new North-South orientation is primed for exciting new achievements well into the future.      

I must confess that there is one other reason why I am so pleased to be involved with Austria and can share the pride of the Austrian science community in its growing importance in the global research arena.  My father emigrated to the US from Austria in 1926 with a degree in chemistry from the University of Vienna.  My Austrian grandfather was Geschäftsführer (CEO) of the large electrical equipment company in Austria, Siemens-Schuckert.  And in 1918 he was knighted by the last Habsburg Emperor, Karl the First, for having founded the Exportakademie, which became the Hochschule für Welthandel (Institute for World Trade), and which today is the Vienna University of Economics and Business (Wirtschaftsuniversität).  We still have the elegant, handwritten document in its original lead case conferring the title of "Edler von" on Grandpa Ferdinand Neureiter and a hand-painted rendition of the accompanying coat of arms.        

However, it's OK if you don't address me as Herr Dr. Norman Edler von Neureiter.  Just Norm is enough. 

The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the  AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD)  since July 2009.