Stakeholder’s voices #1: A conversation with Jan-Marco Müller, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

S4D4C members travelled to Laxenburg, to an associated partner of the S4D4C project: the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an independent, international research institute which conducts policy-oriented research into issues that are too large or complex to be solved by a single country or academic discipline. Here we had the pleasure of talking to Jan-Marco Müller, Acting Chief Operations Officer at IIASA.

Could you please introduce yourself including your background and your current position in relation to science diplomacy?

I am currently the Acting Chief Operations Officer of IIASA, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg near Vienna, which means I look after budget, personnel, infrastructure and many other issues.

But I am also engaged in science diplomacy, which comes from my previous background: I worked for the European Commission in different science advisory positions. Two years ago I joined IIASA as head of the directorate office and coordinator for science to policy and science diplomacy.

Would you consider yourself a “science diplomat”?

I would not call myself a science diplomat. Perhaps I would reserve the label “science diplomat” for scientists who actually serve in diplomatic posts, somebody who works in an embassy for instance. So a science diplomat is someone who has a scientific background, but is now working in the diplomatic area. But I am definitely somebody who is embedded in science diplomacy in a wider sense.

What is your shortest possible definition of science diplomacy?

I would say science diplomacy is “the support science gives to foreign relations policies”. This can be tangible support like directly providing scientific advice to foreign policy makers, for instance on systemic challenges, new technologies, international spaces, etc. And it can be intangible contributions, which is the role science can play in building bridges and providing platforms for goodwill between nations on which then diplomatic relations can be built.


And how does creating such international scientific networks work in relation to science diplomacy?

Generally speaking: the language of science is universal. So you have the language of mathematics for instance – it is the same around the world. That means that scientists, no matter their nationality, will always find common ground to talk about a scientific subject. They can open routes and channels which perhaps politicians or diplomats cannot because they are too entrenched into national ideological or political positions. Whereas the scientific enterprise as such is open by nature, creating platforms for dialogue on which then the policy side can build.

Do you think there is something like a specific European discourse on science diplomacy? Can it be distinguished from a global discourse?

Science diplomacy has always been there in Europe. If you look into our history we have done science diplomacy for centuries, but we never labelled it as such. CERN for instance has been doing science diplomacy since its very inception in the 1950’s. So Europe probably has much more tradition in science diplomacy than any other part of the world. But at the same time, when we talk about science diplomacy as a concept and the theoretical framework around it, it started to emerge only relatively recently. Perhaps even more so in the United States where this has become very popular already some time ago.

I would say there is a connection between the European discourse and the global discourse. Perhaps Europe is not yet in the forefront of this discourse, conceptually. It just starts to emerge here, using projects like S4D4C where Europe is trying to make a pitch at a global level also in terms of advancing the concept of science diplomacy.

Would you say talking about the concept of science diplomacy more concretely is an important development here?

Definitely, it is always nice to read about the great good of science diplomacy and to talk about bridge building, but it is still very abstract. I think the question we need to ask is: “What does it mean in very concrete, practical terms?”

This is an issue which is evolving both on the science side but also on the policy side. So now you see strategies emerging on science diplomacy from different actors and from different ministries, but if you look for the word “science” on the organigram of the European External Action Service you won’t find it yet, as is probably the case in most diplomatic services.

There is no way around it though: as the world is getting more complex, the challenges also are getting more complex and interconnected. There is an increasing dependency also of policy makers on expert advice and evidence.

In other world regions, science diplomacy is called differently – “digital diplomacy” for instance. Do you see a variant to the work on science diplomacy as there are apparently different understandings circulating?

Well I would say all these terms “xyz – diplomacy” have become very popular. But at the end of the day they all come down to the same, to provide technical expertise to policymakers and help building bridges. It is about trying to explain the world and providing practical advice to those who make decisions. The term “science diplomacy” by its very nature is very broad because science is very broad. So somehow it is clear that the more you deal with science diplomacy, the more it becomes differentiated into data diplomacy, health diplomacy or whatever it may be.

What role does IIASA currently have in science diplomacy given its specific history? Has this role changed since the beginnings of the institution?

Well, one can say there are very few institutions globally that have science diplomacy so enshrined in their DNA like IIASA. We were established in 1972, basically as an East-West institute, following an initiative of the Soviet Union and the United States. After the Cuba crisis they needed to create instruments preventing them from accidentally going to war. IIASA was established initially with six countries from the West and six countries from the East. The institute was designed to work on the global issues too large for any political block, which was very visionary at the time.

After the cold war the institute’s role was a bit in question. But there was a wise decision taken soon – IIASA should become a global institute with a newly added north and south dimension. Today this is reflected in the members of IIASA – apart from countries in the East and West, we also have the BRICS (Brasil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) on board for instance.

And the science diplomacy aspect is still there. You can see it evidenced by our two newest member organizations from Israel and Iran, which is an interesting couple to my eyes. We bring together scientists from countries that do not have easy-going relations with each other to work together on a greater global good.

Would you say bringing those countries together which have political discrepancies is an agenda IIASA follows or does it happen by chance?

Let’s say it always has been in the back of our minds. We are not labelled as a science diplomacy institute, so our reason of existence is not science diplomacy per se. Our reason of existence is the thematic work we do, which is to work on complex systemic issues, such as systemic risks for instance. But whilst doing this work, the aspect of bringing together people who perhaps don’t talk to each other so easily is always present as well.

Is there a thematic focus in IIASA’s work at the moment, like the SDGs for example?

The SDGs certainly provide a political frame for what we do. Generally speaking, our role is to provide policy solutions. We look at the world as a complex system – how climate change connects to energy, connects to water, connects to population. The results we gain are transferred into recommendations for policy-making.

It makes sense to look at challenges systemically. Not just in an abstract manner, but in very concrete terms. If you tackle climate change, air pollution and energy in one coherent policy rather than in three separate policies, this actually saves a lot of money.

Looking again on the EU’s current efforts in promoting science diplomacy and as you mentioned the European External Action Service – how could scientific advice be integrated systematically into such an institution? And which role can EU-based foreign policy think tanks maybe take over here?

I think we always need to remember that European foreign policy is actually very young. The European External Action Service is probably one of the youngest diplomatic services we have on the planet. Of course this doesn’t mean there haven’t been any foreign policy initiatives from the EU’s side before the EEAS. Also science advice is not entirely new for the European Commission – the Joint Research Centre has been there from the very beginning of the European community, having now the clear mission to provide science advice to policy makers. To my eyes, the EEAS as an institution is still evolving. In fact, it is a very interesting experiment where both EC and EU Member states diplomats are working together in defining Europe’s place in the world.

A voice of science must be there in this evolving space. Here projects like S4D4C come into play, as they help to shape the scientific underpinning of the European foreign policies.

Concerning think tanks, understood here as mostly privately funded institutes that provide policy research and advocacy, I think they have a particular role to play: First and foremost, they have the advantage of being quick in producing output. They can provide a policy briefing within a day and know very well how policy agendas work. Yet what they lack is credibility in the scientific community. When it comes to very technical scientific questions like the famous chlorinated chicken from the US which some claimed to be made possible to enter the European market due to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), think tanks have to “wave the white flag”.  Here you need real natural scientists working together with social scientists to discuss the scientific implications coming along with that issue.

IIASA is also involved in the Foreign Ministries S&T Advice Network FMSTAN. The next FMSTAN member meeting is scheduled in November 2019 in Vienna. Can you tell us about the short history of the network?

FMSTAN was launched in 2016 by Peter Gluckman from New Zealand, Vaughan Turekian from the US, Robin Grimes from the UK, and Teruo Kishi from Japan. At that time those persons named were the only properly nominated science advisors in the foreign ministries of their countries. They decided they needed a transnational platform to talk to each other, and IIASA has had the pleasure to organise the very first workshop of this network in October 2016.

The basic idea is to exchange best practices and push the science diplomacy agenda forward. The meetings may also be useful for brokering agreements between countries from a scientific point of view.

When we had this meeting back in 2016, we had some 24 invited countries at the table. Since then it has evolved quite a lot and the network has meetings twice a year in different locations around the planet. In November 2019, after three years, FMSTAN will come back to Vienna. IIASA is organising the meeting together with the Austrian Foreign Ministry and the Vienna Diplomatic Academy. This is already a proof for the progress of the network, as we are having some of the key partners from the Vienna diplomatic world on board.

Is there already a thematic focus of the upcoming Vienna meeting in November you can share with us?

Basically, we are going to look at three thematic areas at this meeting which reflect the three mentioned partners organising it. The first one is security issues and how science can be used in this context. The second discussion revolves around the role of science in diplomatic curricula and how to train future diplomats on scientific issues, which is something we are going to do together with the DA. The third focus, and this is IIASA’s part, is to look at systemic challenges and how to tackle them in foreign policies.

[Editor’s note: Back-to-back with the FMSTAN meeting in November, an S4D4C workshop on science diplomacy will take place in Vienna. The participants of the S4D4C workshop will have the chance to meet and exchange also with the FMSTAN network.]

You have been participating in S4D4C’s first global networking meeting last year in Madrid and you’ve been among the first signatories of the Madrid Declaration on Science Diplomacy, which was launched in the context of the event. What was your motivation to sign and what is your opinion on the declaration in terms of it being an important step forward contributing to the European and global science diplomacy?

The content of the Madrid Declaration is not entirely new. These are things that have been discussed previously. But putting all together in a paper showcasing this and having signatures of some of the people who influence the agenda in science diplomacy is a good and novel idea. I think it is very good to raise profile and awareness, also at a political level. But it also means there must be some conditions that have to be fulfilled.

Another function of the Madrid declaration is to rally the science diplomacy community in Europe behind a “common goal”. In Europe the community is currently rather fragmented and we have many different initiatives going on – the Madrid Declaration certainly helps to unite them.

IIASA is an associate partner of S4D4C. How do you assess the activities of the project so far?

To be honest, I was a bit sceptical at first because the project’s consortium was not made up of the “usual suspects” you would expect for a science diplomacy project, such as the Royal Society, CERN or also IIASA.

However, following how the project developed over time I was very positively surprised. You really put science diplomacy on the policy-making agenda and achieve bringing together the key people in workshops and events. S4D4C seems a “motor” which is pushing things forward for the science diplomacy community. The outputs produced are considered useful for policy makers, also in this sense the project has developed very well.

I think the most important part is to keep the momentum – push it forward and show the potential of science diplomacy to those who are operating in a diplomatic space. I think one of the issues we need to pay attention to is to find allies – because in all diplomatic circles there will be people who have a science background who can be allies for the cause.


For the website-category “stakeholder’s voice”, S4D4C invites selected experts in the field of science diplomacy and foreign policy to share their insights and knowledge with our readers. The interviews published here resemble the “researcher’s voices” where we feature S4D4C team-members and their views on science diplomacy and the project. With the “stakeholder’s voices” we also show the views of experts who are not directly involved in the project.

S4D4C Team

Posted by S4D4C Team