Norman Neureiter on Science Diplomacy

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / OpEds & Commentaries

By Norman Neureiter

IIASA in the Spectrum of Science Diplomacy        

They didn’t call it “science diplomacy” then, but that’s what it was: It was one of the largest and, politically, one of the most complex science diplomacy initiatives of the modern era. It also turned out to be a truly enduring one. It was multinational and involved several of the then-leading nations of the world; participation was decided at the highest levels of government in each country involved; and the East-West context provided a forum for serious, peaceful, and scholarly cooperation between two blocs of nations that were bitter enemies.

The new institution created in this remarkable initiative is the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). Established in 1972, it still exists today – alive and well 42 years later, with member organizations from 22 countries, a vigorous research program that addresses many of the great problems facing the world today, and a completely new orientation – from East-West to North-South. It has had a fascinating, eventful, and one could say improbable history.

The initial impulse for IIASA came from US President Lyndon Johnson’s White House, and the process that led to the founding of IIASA went on for six years. It is worth examining as a successful science diplomacy initiative that outlived its original motivation of bridge building between the East and West during the Cold War. At that time, the Soviet Union, United States, and 10 other countries from Eastern and Western nations met in London to sign the charter. But after the war ended, it smoothly transitioned to an even broader mission in a North-South context, addressing the major problems facing mankind in a world predicted to have to sustain over nine billion people by 2050. IIASA’ s history provides insights into the nature of the international political process and the often-capricious nature of government decision making.

In 1963, Lyndon Johnson had just become US president after the assassination of President Kennedy – a traumatic experience for the American public. Johnson was “confirmed” in that position by winning the national election in 1964, and by 1966 he had firmly established his own administration, focusing on trying to ease tensions between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR). At first glance, one could easily have said that it was not an auspicious moment for such an initiative. The Vietnam War (very much a proxy war between the US and USSR) was intensifying; the Berlin wall, built in 1961 and starkly dividing Germany, kept adding to its toll of victims killed while fleeing to the West; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had threatened the world with nuclear war and also led to Khrushchev’s replacement in 1964 by a new Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin. All the while, the US and USSR continued their nuclear arms race with each side already having thousands of nuclear warheads in its arsenal, built to destroy each other under the MAD (mutual assured destruction) Doctrine. The Soviets had also become painfully aware of their manifest missile inferiority from the Cuba experience and were greatly expanding their military expenditures to close the nuclear missile gap.

Still, under such circumstances it was to the US’s advantage to think about possible bridge-building steps that might ease US-Soviet relations and mitigate the continual tensions surrounding a divided Germany. It was against this background in 1966 that the White House issued the federal agencies National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM 345) seeking ideas for possible bridge-building initiatives toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. An interagency committee, led by the respected former Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, produced a report that included the suggestion for “the establishment in one of the Eastern European countries or Austria of an East-West Foundation or University that would provide Western instruction in subjects of acute practical importance to the Eastern Europeans such as agriculture, business administration and modern management techniques.” Johnson reportedly liked the idea, but Secretary of State Dean Rusk was cautious and wanted to consult with NATO and work toward a collective Western proposal. Another NSAM in July culminated in Johnson’s famous “bridge-building” speech in October, which included a rich package of constructive initiatives toward easing East-West relations, but without mention of an East-West institute.

What happened next confirmed the importance, and power, of a single dedicated staff person in formulating government policy. At the time, the idea of the institute had nearly been forgotten by the administration. Then in late November, the President’s Deputy National Security Advisor Francis Bator sent a memo to President Johnson recommending a quick NATO check on the “Institute” idea that had seemed to disappear. In the memo he noted that McGeorge Bundy would be ready and willing to take on the task of exploring such an institutional possibility– Bundy having been the National Security Advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and at that time heading the Ford Foundation. Without that follow-up memo to the president, the idea would likely have completely died. But by mid- December, Bundy’s appointment was formally announced and extensive consultations began, both nationally and internationally.

By June of 1967, London, Moscow, Paris, Bonn, and Rome had been visited and Bundy reported that interest was “considerable to great” and the Soviets had designated Jerman Gvishiani as Bundy’s counterpart to continue negotiations. Gvishiani was then Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Science and Technology, the topmost science policy body and authority in the Soviet Government, but he was also the son-in-law of Premier Alexei Kosygin. It was clear that Gvishiani would have support from the highest level of the Soviet government. Furthermore, the influential and very competent Soviet Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, was a strong supporter of the idea and a key figure in the associated diplomacy. Most interestingly, and also very wisely, Bundy’s summary report to the White House never mentioned bridge-building, but only the merits of the proposed international research cooperation. That is the way the proposal had been presented to the Soviets and to the involved Europeans. The White House approved and years of meetings, planning, and negotiations began.

The US, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, France, and West Germany were the principal negotiating parties to decide the details of how to turn this vague concept into a reality. There were several big issues and countless small ones to deal with – some of the smallest taking months to resolve. Early in the process, Bundy enlisted Howard Raiffa, a professor at Harvard Business School and a pioneer in systems analysis research, as a key advisor on the project. The text of Raiffa’s 1992 speech provides fascinating personal details of the complicated process that finally led to IIASA. As the institution’s first director, he was challenged with not only being an advisor but also working with a Soviet counterpart, something other Western groups had failed to do.

For starters, there was a great deal of discussion about naming the organization: Should it be a Center, a Centre, or an Institute? They settled on Institute. But an institute to study what? A plethora of topics were suggested. The Soviets liked cybernetics, perhaps based on computer envy vis-à-vis the West. Others liked modern societies, advanced societies, advanced industrial societies, operations research, policy analysis, management, etc. There was always an objection. Finally, Howard Raiffa said he had once written a book on “applied statistical decision theory” and no one knew what it meant. So, he said, “let’s call it the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, which deals with management and policies and the societal implications of science, because nobody will know what it means and then we’ll have a clean slate.“

The name stuck – admittedly a somewhat infelicitous title for raising money, but that was not the issue in 1970. In fact, today the Institute is primarily known and referred to by its acronym “IIASA” (pronounced Ee-Ah-Sah), although that name reveals little of the fine analytical and research work done there.

Another problem the organization faced, which endured for years, was the separation of East and West Germany. Having been occupied by the Soviets since the end of World War II, in 1949 the eastern part of Germany declared itself a separate country – The German Democratic Republic (GDR). The Soviets were interested in raising the level of recognition of the GDR as a legitimate country, while the US and West Germany (the Federal Republic of Germany) strongly opposed any move implying diplomatic recognition of the GDR. When France suggested creating IIASA as an international treaty, neither the US nor West Germany would consider it, because signing a treaty with the GDR would imply such recognition. The conclusion was that IIASA would have to be a non-governmental institution, even if established and financed by governments. It turned out to be an excellent decision, since it was easier to resolve disagreements or misunderstandings on an individual basis rather than by details being processed through foreign ministries.

In June of 1967, the cause of IIASA got a strong boost with the first summit meeting in six years between the US and USSR (meaning Johnson and Kosygin). Held in the unlikely location of Glassboro, New Jersey, the two leaders got along well. Kosygin was also particularly impressed with the very warm reception accorded to his delegation by the people of Glassboro. There exists a photo of Johnson and Kosygin huddled together in intense private discussion along with a single interpreter during that meeting. In the end, Kosygin was convinced that Johnson was sincere in seeking to improve relations despite previous disagreements. Fourteen months later, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and brought the “Prague Spring” to a sad and sudden end, there were no more interruptions of negotiations about IIASA despite the high increase in East-West tensions.  

When Republican Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, there was some concern about Johnson’s IIASA project. McGeorge Bundy felt that as a staunch Democrat he should step down as IIASA negotiator for the US, lest political conflicts hurt the future of the institution. One of Bundy’s final actions in his role was briefing the new Administration, including President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

I still remember clearly when Bundy came alone to the White House Office of Science and Technology (OST) to brief Nixon’s first Science Advisor, Lee Dubridge, a distinguished physicist and former president of Cal Tech. I was fortunate to be the staff person in that meeting as Dubridge’s Assistant for International Affairs. I had joined the office in July 1969, having just finished a two-year tour as the first US scientific attaché in Eastern Europe, living in Poland and also covering Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Hearing Bundy’s explanation, Dubridge and I heartily endorsed the IIASA project, although neither of us had known about it before. This was all part of the carefully managed political process of soliciting buy-in for IIASA from the Nixon Administration and it worked very well. It was Nixon who directed the National Science Foundation (NSF) to be the funding agency for IIASA and also said that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) would manage US involvement with IIASA.

Whether President Nixon was intrigued enough with the science diplomacy aspect of IIASA to want to apply it elsewhere, or whether Henry Kissinger persuaded him to endorse the approach on other occasions is not clear. In any case, Nixon’s historic opening to China in 1972 did involve discussions about cooperation in science. And a few months later in the summit in Moscow between Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, the new Soviet leader, seven cooperative agreements in science and technology were signed between the two countries. Nixon had become a great pioneer in promoting science collaboration as an integral part of US international diplomacy.

The next issue was where to locate the new international institution. The Western academic community favored England or France. The British Science Advisor Sir Solly Zuckerman, a vigorous supporter of IIASA from the beginning, appeared to have assumed from the beginning that it would be in the UK. After all, the planning meetings were often held at British institutions. Sir Solly also disagreed strongly with the Italians’ global modeling approach taken by the Club of Rome people. The Club of Rome efforts coupled with work at MIT eventually led to a very controversial book called Limits to Growth, predicting exponential economic and population growths in a world with limited resources. The Nixon Administration also saw the book as a threat to US economic growth and therefore Italy was never in the location running.

Location options continued to narrow when, in September 1971, the British Government suddenly announced the expulsion of more than 100 Soviet diplomats, trade officials, and journalists on charges of spying. The action froze British relations with the Soviets for a number of months and assured that IIASA would find no home in the UK. It was the French who got things moving again some months later by suggesting France as a location and even offering Fontainebleu as a home. This seemed very attractive at first but slowly cooled as cost estimates rose, and limitations were placed on changes inside the building.

During the location debate, Austrian Ambassador to the USSR Walter Wodak saw a unique opportunity. He proposed that Austria donate the decaying (but later beautifully restored) Schloss Laxenburg, a former summer residence of the once immensely powerful Habsburg emperors. It was located on 20 acres of parkland in the village of Laxenburg, just 14 kilometers south of the center of Vienna. Although it would take several years to fully renovate the Schloss, Austria provided attractive financial terms. The idea also fit well with Austria’s active foreign policy when trying to attract international organizations. The battle between France and Austria was intense and continued almost until the day of signing. In the end, Austria prevailed and IIASA was registered there as an international organization. One of the rooms in the Schloss is still today named the Wodak Room in honor of the Ambassador’s efforts and the continued involvement of him and his chemist wife in IIASA.

With the location settled, more challenges sprang up. Some two years had been spent in drafting a charter, wrestling with issues about what topics to study, how many people should there be, how are scientists to be selected, and what is the role of the Council as compared to the Director? Examples of items agreed upon were:

1) The Director would be an American.

2) The head of the Council (consisting of one representative from each member country) would be a Russian.

3) The language of the institution (insisted on by Gvishiani himself) would be only English.

4) Funding would come from each member country, but the US and Soviet Union would each pay $2 million per year and the other countries, originally thought to be only four, would together only pay $2 million. The other four countries were the UK, France, Bulgaria, and Poland. And when Japan and Canada were added in the last month, they had to be matched by two countries from the East: so Hungary and Czechoslovakia were also included.     

Originally there were to be six member countries, which grew to eight and then continued to grow beyond that.

Finally, in October 1972 at the Royal Society in London, the charter was signed by the twelve nations. No one talked about bridge building at the time. One can call IIASA a science diplomacy initiative, but without excellent scientists from several countries, without high level commitment in political circles, without the greater flexibility offered by a non-governmental organization, and without a lot of work by dedicated people, it would have been easy for IIASA to fail. What is important is the work the scientists did and the impact of their analysis and research. What began as science diplomacy became an important element of the global scientific effort toward sustainable development. Good science made science diplomacy successful.

Over the course of 42 years, there have been many more ups and downs in IIASA. One great crisis was in 1981, when the Reagan Administration withdrew US government financial support on the grounds that the Soviets had used IIASA as a base for gathering intelligence information; in short, that it was a nest of Soviet spies. Support from NSF was cut off and the NAS, without NSF support, could no longer support the initiative. In light of the impending crisis, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAA&S) in Cambridge, MA, with strong support from several Harvard professors and funds from the Ford Foundation, kept IIASA solvent and American membership intact. It was only after the first President Bush came into office with Yale physicist Alan Bromley as his science advisor that USG support through the NSF was again provided.

The second big adjustment for IIASA came with the end of the Cold War, resulting in the independence of former Soviet Republics and Eastern European countries, and the relaxation of the East-West conflict. If the sole purpose of IIASA had been bridge building between East and West, IIASA’s purpose would have been completed. However, the subjects of IIASA had moved beyond just that, focusing on areas like climate change, demographics, energy, land use, forests, and agriculture. The institution had been so successful and relevant to the big issues facing the world that many members wished to continue along with new members wanting to join. The agenda and focus became increasingly North-South oriented with relevance to the broad challenges of sustainable development. Indeed, IIASA had grown up into a major research contributor to the challenge of sustainable development and the future of the earth.

One of IIASA’s finest programs has become the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), which each year through competitive selection brings about 50 young scientists from around the world to spend three months at IIASA working on one of the projects of their choice. This program has built up a worldwide cohort of young scientists who have shared the IIASA experience and who can continue to cooperate on common problems after they return to their home countries. l have lectured several times to the YSSP fellows, and it is inspirational to see talented young people from around the world working together on some of the great challenges in building a sustainable planet.

At the present time IIASA has 22 member countries; Mexico became the newest member country in June 2014. Its present director is Professor Pavel Kabat, born in Czechoslovakia and for many years a distinguished professor of hydrology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He is also one of the world’s great authorities on water issues. Some 300 professionals work at IIASA covering the topics of energy and climate change, food and water, and poverty and equity.

There are some important lessons to be learned from this IIASA experience. IIASA was first conceived as a science diplomacy initiative driven by the motive of East-West bridge building. However, if the science had not been first-rate, the institution would not have survived. Its durability depended on the quality of its science and the dedication of the scientists from many countries who worked there. The message for those who would do science diplomacy is clear: Good science diplomacy demands high quality science. IIASA is an example of how science diplomacy coupled with excellent science, as well as sustained support and early involvement of senior statesmen, can help build a more sustainable world.


  1. McDonald, Alan (2006). “Scientific Cooperation as a Bridge Across the Cold War Divide: The Case of the IIASA.” Environmentally Compatible Energy Strategies Project, IIASA, A-2361, Laxenburg, Austria. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 866(1):55-83.
  2. Transcript of a speech “The Founding of the Institute” by the first director Howard Raiffa on September 23, 1992, on IIASA website.    
  3. “A Brief History of IIASA and Schloss Laxenburg,” a very well done publication of IIASA and available from IIASA in Laxenburg.
  4. My own personal on-and-off experiences with IIASA from the summer of 1969 up to the present day (see above account of Bundy visit to White House Science Advisor). At present I am also the chairman of the Board of the IIASA Endowment Fund based in Vienna, and a director and vice president of the US 501c(3) organization called Friends of IIASA, an NGO established to raise funds in the US through tax-deductible contributions for support of selectively chosen projects at IIASA (  


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