By Donella Meadows
–April 2, 1987–
There was reason to hope that after the Iran-contra affair the Administration would deal with foreign policy in a manner a bit less swashbuckling. But its decision about IIASA last week, while a minor matter, just a small omen, suggests that the White House is still dominated by the Rambo mentality.
IIASA is the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, located near Vienna. It was founded in 1972 after six years of negotiations between the USA and the USSR. Eastern and Western scientists from 16 nations work together there on issues of common concern, such as energy, hazardous waste, acid rain, and world food trade.
IIASA is run not by governments, but by scientific organizations (the Soviet Academy of Science, many European academies, and, originally, the U.S. National Academy of Science). Governments put up most of its budget, however, and therefore there has always been a possibility that politics might override science at IIASA. But that never happened until the Reagan Administration came along.
Early in the first Reagan term the administration canceled the regular U.S. budget allocation for IIASA ($2.3 million — the same amount contributed by the USSR) and pulled the National Academy out of IIASA membership. Reagan convinced Margaret Thatcher to end British participation in IIASA as well.
Why? For five years now, as IIASA has struggled to continue without U.S. government funding, and as American scientists have tried to raise private funds to stay in IIASA, I have been trying to understand that decision.
The first explanation was that IIASA is a shelter for Soviet spies and a place where American technical secrets slip to the East. But anyone who knows IIASA knows that that charge is laughable. Acid rain is not a hot security issue. The computers and software at IIASA are not only ordinary but antiquated — the Soviets could copy them from a hundred other places, if they wanted to. All work at IIASA is open, no offices are locked, the scientists there are experts in population age structures and water pollution, not in military matters.
These points have been made over and over to Congress, to the Departments of Defense and State, to the National Security Council. State Department officials have visited IIASA. NSC staff have concluded that there is no security risk there. The Secretary of State wrote a letter encouraging IIASA to seek research contracts from appropriate government agencies. In the 1986 budget Congress authorized $500,000 for IIASA projects, a big cut from the regular dues, but enough to keep the U.S. a member. The authorization was passed to the NSC, where John Poindexter pigeonholed it for nearly a year without action. Then he was fired.
During the ensuing chaos scientists and Congressmen kept pressure on the NSC to clear the IIASA allocation, which, apparently it did. But on March 27 the White House once again vetoed U.S. funding of IIASA. No security reasons were given for this decision. One can only conclude that it was made for ideological reasons, and that ultimately the hard-liners are still in control.
The decision is a small matter, a trivial amount of money, for an institute that only involves a few hundred scientists. But it is important, not only as an indication of the continuing immobility of White House policy, but because IIASA itself is important. It is one of the few places on earth where Russians and Americans are working side by side on global problems.
I remember a lunch at IIASA with a Russian mathematician who is as concerned as I am about the environmental effects of agriculture. The ideas we exchanged have led to a project comparing the environmental impacts of farms in the USSR and USA.
I remember talks with a brilliant Hungarian economist who taught me how both socialist and capitalist agricultural economies work, and how they interact in the world food trade system.
A Soviet soil scientist at IIASA provided me with the first data I had ever seen on soil erosion rates in his part of the world.
Meetings at IIASA this year are bringing about the first consistent East-West forest monitoring program to map the environmental effects of air pollution.
These examples, and many more, are not irrelevant to security; they are positive steps toward security on a global level. They are an ongoing example of President Reagan’s image of Soviets and Americans working together in the face of some real challenge, such as an invasion from space. We have real challenges now, in the form of hunger, climate change, energy, environmental degradation. At IIASA Soviets and Americans are working on those problems, and it is clear from 15 years of experience there that the Soviets are willing and worthy partners.
Unfortunately, our Administration still can’t see that.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987