Dance and science: A graceful partnership for change

By Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Co-Artistic Director of Boston Dance Theater

I recently had the privilege of artistically collaborating on Dancing with the Future, a project spearheaded by Gloria Benedikt and Piotr Magnuszewski of IIASA with Martin Nowak of Harvard University. The process involved five dancers joining two scientists to create an evening-length performance-debate that toured to Harvard University’s Farkas Hall and the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development at Columbia University this fall. The essence of this interdisciplinary project was a product of Nowak’s published research on altruism and evolution. Nowak proposes: “Evolution is not only a fight. Not mere competition. Also cooperation, cooperation is the master architect of evolution. Now that we have reached the limits of our planet, can you cooperate with the future?”

The cast from left to right: Hannah Kickert, Gloria Benedikt, Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, Mimmo Miccolis, Henoch Spinola © Daniel Kruganov

What can I do to contribute to a global effort to create sustainable practices that yield cooperation with the future? Why do I dance and what kind of impact does my dancing have on my environment and myself? As a co-artistic director, entrepreneur, choreographer, and performing artist of the young and fast-growing contemporary dance company Boston Dance Theater (BDT), I am turning to projects that are on the innovative cross-section between the arts, technology, and other disciplines because they have the most potential to have meaningful impact on the level of the creative team, the audience, and beyond. I too, am searching for practices and partnerships for BDT that yield pathways for collective problem solving, or ‘super-cooperation’. As Nowak notes, “[evolutionarily speaking] humans are super-cooperators.”

Overall, Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that scientists, dancers, and policymakers can successfully sit at the same table (or in the same theater or conference hall), tackle the same issues, and productively collaborate toward unearthing sustainable solutions.

We all had to be open to compromises — this is not an easy task in a room full of expert-leaders. I set a mantra for myself to remember that we were creating something completely new. Each time my choreographer-dancer brain sent up a red flag, I chose selectively when to share my opinion with the group. I elected to practice the Buddhist teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, captured poetically in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” This choice opened others and myself up to creative and peaceful solutions that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

Conversely, I was able to offer constructive solutions at moments when working with the scientific material seemed to overwhelm the studio process, for example, dividing the existing text and music into segments and giving each of those segments a specific choreographic task that related to the content of the scientific text. This was a very simple concept that had to do with pacing and sculpting time. Once we counted out the music, it was easy for us to construct the movement score and see the overall arc of the piece.

Rehearsal with Martin Nowak © Daniel Kruganov

I learned not to be afraid of using my voice and also listening deeply. It was, at first, very intimidating to be seated across from experts in fields outside of my own. I learned that scientists and policymakers can understand, respect, and respond to the decisions I make through a process of peaceful negotiation, even when we speak different languages, were born on different continents, and may have varying political opinions. My fear was ultimately unnecessary because the very nature of this project appeals to the humanity in us all.

This form of cross-disciplinary collaboration allows participants to see our own work in a new light and to discover new languages that are exciting because we have co-authored them. For the work to be successful, the dance, science, and debate components must all have equal weight and value. Otherwise, the movement and its choreographic structure becomes the visual representation of the science rather than an equal partner. When that happens, the magic of innovative collaboration falls flat into familiar territory.

During the process, we often referred to this Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I’ll remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Dancers understand this concept in a very concrete and visceral way. For scientists, policymakers, or the general audience to understand too, they must be involved as much as possible in the process of what we are doing. If we cannot for reasons of practicality, have them with us in the studio, then we must bring them into the process in another way. It is only by involving them as collaborators that we can generate large scale, super-cooperation.

Sometimes it feels like my dancer colleagues and I exist in a vacuum: we rehearse in the confines of the studio and historically perform on stages that make us appear as ‘other’ from the people we are performing for. Western concert dance has received criticism for being an inaccessible art form and according to the 2016 report from The Boston Foundation, is the most under-funded of Boston’s performing arts. Dancers aren’t typically trained to speak about their work, and often have a hard time receiving criticism. Contemporary dance in particular, can be challenging to general audience members because the language of the art and its conceptual frameworks are sometimes not evident in the work itself — many choreographers feel creatively stifled when asked to explain their work in language and wonder why the art work can’t speak for itself.

I have come to learn that these problems are not unique to dance. After our premiere of Dancing with the Future at Harvard University, scientists thanked me for helping them to understand new meaning within the scientific research presented through my performance. Their experience of live performance elicited a keen sense of empathy that drew them into deeper understanding of the scientific findings. This collaboration yielded a tri-fold, reciprocal impact for the artists, for the scientists, and for the public.

The cast in action © Daniel Kruganov

Our work helped to bridge the traditional gap between creative team and general audience member. It can be that when a member of the public enjoys a performance, they leave the venue with a good feeling and a nice memory as a souvenir. I believe that our art form has the power to do more — to make a greater impact and to be appreciated as an inherent and necessary aspect of our society and culture.

It is our civic responsibility to continue workshopping solutions toward global cooperation and cooperation with future generations. Dancing with the Future has encouraged me, on a micro scale, that this is a reasonable and plausible endeavor. With continued care, attention toward our common goals, compassion, listening, and risk-taking, we can understand one another through the process of creation regardless of what language we speak or where we were born. The next steps may be small, but nonetheless crucial. Next season, Boston Dance Theater will commission new works by three international choreographers with the stipulation that the pieces must speak to pressing global issues, and cross-disciplinary collaboration will be a cornerstone of that production.

Dancing with the Future has revealed to me that partnerships with super-cooperators such the teams at IIASA and Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics can bring meaningful potential to catalyze change in me as an individual and in Boston Dance Theater as an organization, while enabling us to reach our extended communities. I can’t wait for the next project!

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The hidden impacts of species extinction

by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

Ecosystems worldwide are changed by the influence of humans, often leading to the extinction of species, for example due to climate change or loss of natural habitat. But it doesn’t stop there: as the different species in an ecosystem feed on each other and are thereby interconnected, the loss of one species might lead to the extinction of others, which can even destabilize the whole system. “In nature, everything is connected in a complex way, so at first glance you cannot be sure what will happen if one species disappears from an ecosystem,” says IIASA postdoc Mateusz Iskrzyński.

This is why the IIASA Evolution and Ecology (EEP) and Advanced Systems Analysis (ASA) programs are employing food-web modeling to find out which properties make ecosystems particularly vulnerable to species extinction. Food webs are stylized networks that represent the feeding relationships in an ecosystem. Their nodes are given by species or groups of species, and their links indicate how biomass cycles through the system by means of eating and being eaten. “This type of network analysis has a surprising power to uncover general patterns in complex relationships,” explains Iskrzyński.

Every one of these food webs is the result of years of intense research that involves both data collection to assess the abundance of species in an area, and reconstructing the links of the network from existing knowledge about the diets of different species. The largest of the currently available webs contain about 100 nodes and 1,000 weighted links. Here, “weighted” means that each link is characterized by the biomass flow between the nodes it connects.

Usually, food webs are published and considered individually, but recently efforts have been stepped up to collect them and analyze them together. Now, the ASA and EEP programs have collected 220 food webs from all over the world in the largest database assembled so far. This involved unifying the parametrization of the data and reconstructing missing links.

The researchers use this database to find out how different ecosystems react to the ongoing human-made species loss, and which ones are most at risk. This is done by removing a single node from a food web, which corresponds to the extinction of one group of species, and modeling how the populations of the remaining species change as a result. The main question is how these changes in the food web depend on its structural properties, like its size and the degree of connectedness between the nodes.

From the preliminary results obtained so far, it seems that small and highly connected food webs are particularly vulnerable to the indirect effects of species extinction. This means that in these webs the extinction of one species is especially likely to lead to large disruptive change affecting many other organisms. “Understanding the factors that cause such high vulnerability is crucial for the sustainable management and conservation of ecosystems,” says Iskrzyński. He hopes that this research will encourage more, and more precise, empirical ecosystems studies, as reliable data is still missing from many places in the world.

As a next step, the scientists in the two programs are planning to understand which factors determine the impact that the disappearance of a particular group of organisms has. They are going to make the software they use for their simulations publicly available, together with the database they developed.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

India’s Unwanted Daughters

Nandita Saikia

©Nandita Saikia

By Nandita Saikia, Postdoctoral Research Scholar at IIASA

Being an author of a research article on excess female deaths in India in Lancet Global Health, one of the world’s most prestigious and high impact factor public health journals, today I questioned myself: Did I dream of reaching here when I was a little school going girl in the early nineties in a remote village in North East India?

I am the fourth daughter of five. In a country like India, where the status of women is undoubtedly poorer than men even now, and newspapers are often filled with heinous crimes against women, you may be able to imagine what it meant being a fourth daughter. Out of five sisters, three of us were born because my parents wanted a son. My mother, who barely completed her school education, did not want more than two children irrespective of sex, but was pressurized by the extended family to go for a boy after a third daughter and six years of repeated abortions.

I was told in my childhood that I was the most unwanted child in the family. I was a daughter, terribly underweight until age 11, and had much darker skin than my elder sisters and most people from our area, who have fairer skin than average in India. At my birth, my father, a college dropout farmer, was away in a relative’s house and when he heard about the arrival of another girl, he postponed his return trip.

This is a real story, but just one of those still happening in India. The fact that the girls of India are unwanted was observed from the days of early 20th century when it was written in the 1901 census:

“There is no doubt that, as a rule, she [a girl] receives less attention than would be bestowed upon a son. She is less warmly clad, … She is probably not so well fed as a boy would be, and when ill, her parents are not likely to make the same strenuous efforts to ensure her recovery.”

Regrettably, our current study shows that negligence against “India’s daughter” continues to this day.

Discrimination against the girl child can be divided in two categories: before birth and after birth. Modern techniques now allow sex-selective abortion. Despite strong laws, more than 63 million women are estimated to be ‘missing’ in India and the discrimination occurs at all levels of society.

Our present study deals with gender discrimination after birth. We found that over 200,000 girls under the age of five died in 2005 in India as a result of negligence. We found that excess female mortality was present in more than 90% of districts, but the four largest states of North India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh) accounted for two thirds of India’s total number.

I have to tell you that I was luckier than most girls. Although I was an unwanted child in our extended family, to my mother, this underweight, dark-skinned, little girl was as cute as the previous ones! She gave her best care to her daughter, and she named her “Rani” meaning “Queen” in Assamese. I am still called by this name in my family and in my village.

When I grew up, I asked her several times about her motive for calling me Rani. She always replied: “You were so ugly, the thinnest one with dark skin, I named you as “Rani” because I wanted everyone to have a positive image before seeing you! Also, it is the name of my favorite teacher in high school and she was also a very thin but bright lady!”

The positive conversations with my mother played a crucial role to my desire to have my own identity, and influenced greatly my positive image of myself and my belief that I could do something worthwhile with my life. Much later, when I started my PhD at International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS), Mumbai, I was surprised to learn that in Maharashtra, one of the wealthiest states of India, second or third daughters are not even given a name, but instead are called ‘Nakusha’, meaning unwanted.

My parents were passionate about educating their daughters, even with their limited means.  My father, who was disappointed at my birth, left no stone unturned for my education! By the time I completed secondary school, our village, as well as neighboring villages, congratulated me during the Bihu celebration (the biggest local gathering) for my good performance in school exams. My parents were proud of me by that time; yet, for some strange reason, they always felt themselves weaker than our neighbors who had sons.

Now, people from our village are proud of me not just because I teach in India’s premier university, or that I take several overseas trips in a year, but because they realize that daughters can equally bring renown to their village; daughters can be married off without a dowry; daughters can equally provide old age care to their parents; daughters too can buy property! Due to this attitude and lower fertility levels, many couples now don’t prefer sons over daughters. In a village of 200 households, there are 33 couples that have either one or two daughters, yet did not keep trying for sons. In my own extended family, no one chooses to have more than two children irrespective of their sex. The situation has changed in my village, but not everywhere.

What is the solution of this deep-rooted social menace? We cannot expect a simple solution. However, my own story convinces me that education can be a game changer, but not necessarily academic degrees. I mean a system by which girls realize their own worth and their capability that they can be economically and socially empowered and can drive their own lives. With the help of education, I made myself from an “unwanted” to a wanted daughter!

The purpose of sharing my story is neither self-promotion nor to gain sympathy, rather to inspire millions of girls, who face numerous challenges in everyday life just because of their gender, and doubt their capability, just like I did in my school days. They can make a difference if they want! Nothing can stop them!

Using Twitter data for demographic research

By Dilek Yildiz, Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW and WU), Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Social media offers a promising source of data for social science research that could provide insights into attitudes, behavior, social linkages and interactions between individuals. As of the third quarter of 2017, Twitter alone had on average 330 million active users per month. The magnitude and the richness of this data attract social scientists working in many different fields with topics studied ranging from extracting quantitative measures such as migration and unemployment, to more qualitative work such as looking at the footprint of second demographic transition (i.e., the shift from high to low fertility) and gender revolution. Although, the use of social media data for scientific research has increased rapidly in recent years, several questions remain unanswered. In a recent publication with Jo Munson, Agnese Vitali and Ramine Tinati from the University of Southampton, and Jennifer Holland from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, we investigated to what extent findings obtained with social media data are generalizable to broader populations, and what constitutes best practice for estimating demographic information from Twitter data.

A key issue when using this data source is that a sample selected from a social media platform differs from a sample used in standard statistical analysis. Usually, a sample is randomly selected according to a survey design so that information gathered from this sample can be used to make inferences about a general population (e.g., people living in Austria). However, despite the huge number of users, the information gathered from Twitter and the estimates produced are subject to bias due to its non-random, non-representative nature. Consistent with previous research conducted in the United States, we found that Twitter users are more likely than the general population to be young and male, and that Twitter penetration is highest in urban areas. In addition, the demographic characteristics of users, such as age and gender, are not always readily available. Consequently, despite its potential, deriving the demographic characteristics of social media users and dealing with the non-random, non-representative populations from which they are drawn represent challenges for social scientists.

Although previous research has explored methods for conducting demographic research using non-representative internet data, few studies mention or account for the bias and measurement error inherent in social media data. To fill this gap, we investigated best practice for estimating demographic information from Twitter users, and then attempted to reduce selection bias by calibrating the non-representative sample of Twitter users with a more reliable source.

Exemplar of CrowdFlower task © Jo Munson.

We gathered information from 979,992 geo-located Tweets sent by 22,356 unique users in South-East England and estimated their demographic characteristics using the crowd-sourcing platform CrowdFlower and the image-recognition software Face++. Our results show that CrowdFlower estimates age more accurately than Face++, while both tools are highly reliable for estimating the sex of Twitter users.

To evaluate and reduce the selection bias, we ran a series of models and calibrated the non-representative sample of Twitter users with mid-year population estimates for South-East England from the UK Office of National Statistics. We then corrected the bias in age-, sex-, and location-specific population counts. This bias correction exercise shows promise for unbiased inference when using social media data and can be used to further reduce selection bias by including other sociodemographic variables of social media users such as ethnicity.  By extending the modeling framework slightly to include an additional variable, which is only available through social media data, it is also possible to make unbiased inferences for broader populations by, for example, extracting the variable of interest from Tweets via text mining. Lastly, our methodology lends itself for use in the calculation of sample weights for Twitter users or Tweets. This means that a Twitter sample can be treated as an individual-level dataset for micro-level analysis (e.g., for measuring associations between variables obtained from Twitter data).

Reference:

Yildiz, D., Munson, J., Vitali, A., Tinati, R. and Holland, J.A. (2017). Using Twitter data for demographic research, Demographic Research, 37 (46): 1477-1514. doi: 10.4054/DemRes.2017.37.46

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

What would an oil spill mean for the Arctic?

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

As climate change warms up the planet, it is the Arctic where the effects are most pronounced. According to scientific reports, the Arctic is warming twice as fast in comparison to the rest of the world. That in itself is a cause for concern. However, as the region increasingly becomes ice-free in summer, making shipping and other activities possible, another threat looms large. That of an oil spill.

©AllanHokins I Flickr

While it can never be good news, an oil spill in the Arctic could be particularly dangerous because of its sensitive ecosystem and harsh climatic conditions, which make a cleanup next to impossible. With an increase in maritime traffic and an interest in the untapped petroleum reserves of the Arctic, the likelihood of an oil spill increases significantly.

Maisa Nevalainen, as part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), is working to assess the extent of the risk posed by oil spills in the Arctic marine areas.

“That the Arctic is perhaps the last place on the planet which hasn’t yet been destroyed or changed drastically due to human activity, should be reason enough to tread with utmost caution,” says Nevalainen

Although the controversial 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound was quite close to the Arctic Circle, so far no major spills have occurred in the region. However, that also means that there is no data and little to no understanding of the uncertainties related to such accidents in the region.

For instance, one of the significant impacts of an oil spill would be on the varied marine species living in the region, likely with consequences carrying far in to the future. Because of the cold and ice, oil decomposes very slowly in the region, so an accident involving oil spill would mean that the oil could remain in the ice for decades to come.

Thick-billed Murre come together to breed in Svalbard, Norway. Nevalainen’s study so far suggests that birds are most likely to die of an oil spill as compared to other animals. © AllanHopkins I Flickr

Yet, researchers don’t know how vulnerable Arctic species would be to a spill, and which species would be affected more than others. Nevalainen, as part of her study at IIASA will come up with an index-based approach for estimating the vulnerability (an animal’s probability of coming into contact with oil) and sensitivity (probability of dying because of oiling) of key Arctic functional groups of similar species in the face of an oil spill.

“The way a species uses ice will affect what will happen to them if an oil spill were to happen,” says Nevalainen. Moreover, oil tends to concentrate in the openings in ice and this is where many species like to live, she adds.

During the summer season, some islands in the region become breeding grounds for birds and other marine species both from within the Arctic and those that travel thousands of miles from other parts of the world. If these species or their young are exposed to an oil spill, then it could not only result in large-scale deaths but also affect the reproductive capabilities of those that survive. This could translate in to a sizeable impact on the world population of the affected species. Polar bears, for example, have, on an average two cubs every three years. This is a very low fertility rate – so, even if one polar bear is killed, the loss can be significant for the total population. Fish on the other hand are very efficient and lay eggs year round. Even if all their eggs at a particular time were destroyed, it would most likely not affect their overall population. However, if their breeding ground is destroyed then it can have a major impact on the total population depending on their ability and willingness to relocate to a new area to lay eggs, explains Nevalainen.

Due to lack of sufficient data on the number of species in the region as well as that on migratory population, it is difficult to predict future scenarios in case of an accident, she adds. “Depending on the extent of the spill and the ecosystem in the nearing areas, a spill can lead to anything from an unfortunate incident to a terrible disaster,” says Nevalainen.

©katiekk I Shutterstock

It might even affect the food chain, at a local or global level. “If oil sinks to the seafloor, some species run the risk of dying or migrating due to destroyed habitat – an example being walruses as they merely dive to get food from the sea floor,” adds Nevalainen. As the walrus is a key species in the food web, this has a high probability of upsetting the food chain.

When the final results of her study come through, Nevalainen aims to compare different regions of the Arctic and the probability of damage in these areas, as well as potential solutions to protect the ecosystem. This would include several factors. One of them could be breeding patterns – spring, for instance, is when certain areas need to be cordoned off for shipping activities, as most animals breed during this time.

“At the moment there are no mechanisms to deal with an oil spill in the Arctics. I hope that it never happens. The Arctic ecosystem is very delicate and it won’t take too much to disturb it, and the consequences can be huge, globally,” warns Nevalainen.

About the Researcher

Maisa Nevalainen is a third- year PhD student at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her main focus is on environmental impacts caused by Arctic oil spills, while her main research interests include marine environment, and environmental impacts of oil spills among others. Nevalainen is working with the Arctic Futures Initiative at IIASA over the summer, with Professor Brian Fath as her supervisor and Mia Landauer and Wei Liu as her co-supervisors.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.