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AAAS Review of Global Change Institute Offers Endorsement and a Guide to Building Strength
The Inter-American Institute for Global Change (IAI) has produced high-quality research and is helping build scientific capacity in the Americas, but needs stronger communication and outreach to maximize its impact with policymakers and the public, according to a review organized by AAAS.
The report commissioned by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) marks both an endorsement and a clear guide to future evolution for the 15-year-old Institute, which is based in Brazil.
The Inter-American Institute focuses on the Americas and the Caribbean, a region of extraordinary biological diversity and climate variations that is beset by growing populations and serious environmental problems. Because the IAI has the potential to be a significant force in the study of climate and related changes in the Western Hemisphere, especially Latin America, the report urged governments of the 19 member nations to provide more financial and political support to its operations.
"There is little doubt that the IAI is as important today as it was when the governments of the Americas first created it. As we look toward the future need to take further steps to promote sustainable development and well-being in the hemisphere, the IAI will take on even a more important role in informing government action." said Vaughan Turekian, AAAS's chief international officer.
IAI Director Holm Tiessen, who joined the institute two years ago, welcomed the report. While some organizational problems cited by the reviewers have already been resolved, he said in an interview, the report addresses "in a productive and in a forward-looking way some solutions to some perennial problems."
Among the report's key findings:
Science and Research: The IAI research program "has produced high-quality science, especially in the natural sciences," the report says. "Aspects of this science have been internationally recognized and supported." Latin American scientists meanwhile are increasingly taking leadership roles in IAI research. But "there are still too few projects analyzing the reciprocal links between human activities and environmental change."
Capacity building:IAI short courses, workshops and apprenticeships have helped create "strong evidence" that capacity-building activities "are some of the most valuable contributions that the Institute has made to both science and society in the Americas."
Funding: Financial support for the IAI is "a concern," the report found. Not all of the 19 member states have made their pledged contributions; the Institute has had to rely principally on a few donors, especially the United States. The reviewers recommended that the IAI seek support from industry, non-governmental groups and other sources and establish an endowment "to ensure stable and strategic resources" for operations.
Communication and Dialogue: "Progress in science and scientific capacity building has been insufficiently translated into... action," the report concludes, and the authors attribute that shortcoming to the need for more concerted communication and outreach efforts. While Tiessen has made outreach a priority, they added, "[i]t is imperative... that the Institute develop a comprehensive communications strategy" to help position it "as the broker of two-way dialogue between the science and decision-making communities throughout the region."
The Institute emerged from a global environmental initiative undertaken by U.S. President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. Nearly a dozen nations in the Americas convened in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1992 to approve a treaty that created the Inter-American Institute.
The treaty called for the IAI to conduct research and to fund research grants focused on the environmental and social impact of climate change in the Americas. It was further expected to augment the region's overall scientific capacity, enhance regional relationships, promote the exchange of science data and improve training and education.
Brazil was selected in 1994 to be the IAI's host country, and over the next two years the organization began to fund its first grants and initiate research projects.
The 19 members of the IAI are: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, the United States and Venezuela.
By 2004, the IAI annual budget had grown to $3.1 million. The NSF, on behalf of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, was providing about 87 percent of the total, the new report says, far more than envisioned under the initial agreement.
The NSF Directorate for Geosciences awarded a grant to the AAAS International Office in 2004 to assemble an external review team and to oversee an assessment of the Institute, the first such review since the IAI was founded.
The assessment was presented to the IAI last month in Manaus, Brazil. Turekian, Tiessen and others involved with the review said that it comes at an opportune time. With global change awareness rising throughout the Americas, they said, it gives the IAI a solid course of action for the future.
"People realize that their societies are going to be affected by various aspects of global change, and they understand and appreciate that they need to know more about what global change holds for their future," added Jerry Melillo, the ecologist and climate change scholar who chaired the AAAS review committee. "The problem is that basic resources for supporting research in some of the IAI countries is very slim indeed...
"But I'm pretty optimistic and I think we're going to see support for IAI growing in the next decade or so, especially if it is successful in communicating why the information it generates is useful to policymakers," added Melillo, co-director of The Ecosystems Center at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory. "We think the health of the organization depends on that communication, and the capacity of societies to respond to global change will be enhanced by that communication."
Paul E. Filmer, the NSF program director for the IAI, called Tiessen "extremely proactive" and noted that the Institute already is acting on a number of the assessment's recommendations. Filmer said the review provides support to Tiessen when he seeks to win support for the IAI and its objectives from top-level government officials. And the outreach effort is bearing fruit: Though Bolivia had not been active in the IAI since its earliest days, the country has recently renewed its engagement, he said.
Recognizing the risk of depending solely on financing from member countries, the IAI also is moving to expand its funding base. The Global Environment Facility, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank could be supporters, Filmer said, and so could companies like Petrobras in Brazil, which has a fund for green activities.
Tiessen, in an interview, said the IAI is supporting some basic practices for building research capacity in the region: Young researchers are being teamed with experienced researchers, for example. The Institute has pressed researchers for projects that are practical and relevant. To encourage the understanding that change issues are regional in nature, all IAI research focuses on more than one country and involves researchers from more than one country.
Improved communication—with both national and local officials, and with the public—is an overarching objective.
"Scientists have tendency to say, 'These research results are important,' but they don't necessarily prove it to anyone else," Tiessen explained. "In recent years, we've learned that research results communicated in language nobody can understand are useless."
Another part of improved communication is to bring local leaders and residents into discussions about projects, he added. For example, he cited a project on how land-use changes in areas around rivers have an impact on water quality; it was focused on the Amazon basin in Andean countries.
In visits to national government officials, the project leaders found scant interest. But once they started work on the project, people in the local communities became "extremely interested," Tiessen said. Water quality has a direct impact on their daily lives. Local schools held special science days to consider the project.
The IAI is now moving to involve more civil society organizations and NGOs in project planning. For an upcoming program on land use and development in South America, IAI has gotten not just researchers and government officials involved, but also farmers and fertilizer manufacturers.
"In our planning meetings, they were engaged—they participated and they're going to stay engaged," Tiessen said. "It's much more effective if you engage people from the beginning. It's a slow process of course, but at the same time it builds trust... It's a mutual learning process."
Edward W. Lempinen
25 July 2007