International Decade of Science for Sustainable Development

The International Year of Basic Science for Sustainable Development (IYBSSD) has ended, and its successor, the International Decade of Science for Sustainable Development (IDSSD) has begun. This article provides some background on this ambitious venture, which ICIAM is considering to support. (The January 2022 issue of ICIAM Dianoia profiled IYBSSD. You will also find much information on their site, The role of mathematics, specifically among the sciences, in sustainability is eloquently explained in the UNESCO publication, Mathematics for Action: Supporting Science-Based Decision-Making

The Inaugural Meeting on Zoom

I attended the inaugural meeting of IDSSD, which took place over Zoom on February 9. The meeting was chaired by Michel Spiro, who is President of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), another member union of the International Science Council. (A representative from ISC attended the meeting, but the IDSSD initiative is not an ISC project - it is completely independent.) I was impressed by the way the meeting was conducted: the chair began by asking all the participants to introduce themseves. This took a long time, but made it clear that we are all sharing something, not merely observing. I can't list all the participants, but Christiane Rousseau (from Mathematics of Planet Earth) was there, along with Monika Bauer from IIASA (I am now on their Scientific Advisory Committee), Vanessa McBride from ISC, Lidia Arthur Brito (and several others) from UNESCO, and Christoph Sorger from IMU. There were people from CNRS and from NSERC (government funding agencies for science in France and Canada respectively), from institutions like ICTP, and many other scientific unions.

The order of business was first an outline by Spiro of how the decade structure will be (or may be - there are still decisions to be made) organized. It will operate under the aegis of UNESCO, there will be working groups and a steering committee. The most important objective of the inaugural meeting was to ask organizations to commit to signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which I'll describe later in this report. The organizations that sign become the managers of IDSSD. This is an ambitious project, that will require substantial fundraising (more on this later). The project designers hope UNESCO will make a commitment. Their support (mainly non-financial) will make it possible to raise money from other sources. The organization will ask someone from UNESCO to be on the governing board. Among the initial steps will be preparing a program of activities. Members will not be passive. There is a need to enlarge the General Assembly (that is to say, the membership list), and especially to include the social sciences (which were not part of IYBSSD), and to engage NGO's.

Lidia Brito from UNESCO then explained how UNESCO manages its 'decades': their sponsorship gives the organization a decade to enact transformation. In this case, the idea is to bring science to the center of the sustainable development agenda.

A decade is not a 'thing' - not a legal organization that can operate projects, collect money, organize staff and volunteers, and so on. An organization called the Earth-Humanity Coalition (EHC) has been formed, and is pursuing tax-exempt legal status in France. In the meantime, IUPAP is serving as the headquarters, until EHC is established in 2025. The projected Earth-Humanity Coalition was presented by Carlos Alvarez Pereira, Secretary-General of the Club of Rome[1]. They have formulated a 'Strategic Framework for the Decade and Plan for 2024'.  Pereira laid out GoalsPhases, and Principles for the decade. The draft document that was circulated is too long and detailed to be printed in ICIAM Dianoia, but a final version should be available on the organization's website,, when that is in operation (not yet). Pereira's presentation also gave a somewhat jaw-dropping list of financial needs: 1 million Euros/year for the 2-year activation phase, 5-10 million per year for the 3-year mobilization phase, and 'billions' for the 5 years of expansion and consolidation. The draft document outlines their ideas about goals, strategic guidelines and organization. I cannot summarize it here, but some of the flavor is conveyed by the aphorism, "We aim to change the value proposition so that a person's well-being is not measured by the size of their ecological footprint."


This presentation was followed by a long discussion period. A representative from the Belmont Forum was concerned about overlap with existing structures which are already stretched thin - for example, Belmont, FutureEarth. The response was that what exists today is not sufficient. There was a question about the role of CERN or similar organizations. Someone pointed to a recent ISC report, Flipping the Science Model (available at the ISC website). I was glad to see a crucial point raised in the discussion: What is the role of industry in this? What engagement is envisaged? Pereira admitted that the question was relevant, but said the approach was not clear. As an organization (the only one in the group) that has 'industrial' in its name, ICIAM might have a role here. In fact, I was a bit disappointed to see that the EHC seems quite naive about the role of industry in influencing the direction of change in the world. 

Supporting IDSSD: The Memo of Understanding and Beyond 

After the discussion, Spiro took over to discuss the MoU. For 2024, IUPAP will be in charge of IDSSD, in the sense of being the legal organization under which IDSSD operates. During the year the new legal organization EHC will be formed to replace IUPAP as the enabling organization of IDSSD. Groups that want to be involved with IDSSD are being asked to sign a MoU that is just for 2024. Signing the MoU requires a contribution of 1,000 Euros for 2024. The officers of ICIAM have decided that making this commitment for one year is justified, a decision with which I concur, and they will be asking the Board for this commitment at the upcoming Board meeting in June. Meanwhile, ICIAM has named a representative to EHC (or IDSSD, which is the same thing): Mary Lou Zeeman, who is the R. Wells Johnson Professor of Mathematics at Bowdoin College in Maine. Mary Lou Zeeman has had a long involvement with climate modeling, sustainability and resilience and is an ideal person to represent ICIAM in this project. 



[1] A compact history of The Club of Rome ( is given in Wikipedia, along with an outline of their signature publication, The Limits to Growth, in 1972.


Barbara Lee Keyfitz

Barbara Lee Keyfitz is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at The Ohio State University. She has a PhD from New York University, and works in partial differential equations. She is a former President of ICIAM, and Editor-in-Chief of ICIAM Dianoia.