Shaping my scientific career

By Davit Stepanyan, PhD candidate and research associate at Humboldt University of Berlin, International Agricultural Trade and Development Group and 2019 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) Award Finalist.

Participating in the YSSP at IIASA was the biggest boost to my scientific career and has shifted my research to a whole new level. IIASA provides a perfect research environment, especially for young researchers who are at the beginning of their career paths and helps to shape and integrate their scientific ideas and discoveries into the global research community. Being surrounded by leading scientists in the field of systems analysis who were open to discuss my ideas and who encouraged me to look at my own research from different angles was the most important push during my PhD studies. Having the work I did at IIASA recognized with an Honorable Mention in the 2019 YSSP Awards has motivated me to continue digging deeper into the world of systems analysis and to pursue new challenges.

© Davit Stepanyan

Although my background is in economics, mathematics has always been my passion. When I started my PhD studies, I decided to combine these two disciplines by taking on the challenge of developing an efficient method of quantifying uncertainties in large-scale economic simulation models, and so drastically reduce the need and cost of big data computers and data management.

The discourse on uncertainty has always been central to many fields of science from cosmology to economics. In our daily lives when making decisions we also consider uncertainty, even if subconsciously: We will often ask ourselves questions like “What if…?”, “What is the chance of…?” etc. These questions and their answers are also crucial to systems analysis since the final goal is to represent our objectives in models as close to reality as possible.

I applied for the YSSP during my third year of PhD research. I had reached the stage where I had developed the theoretical framework for my method, and it was the time to test it on well-established large-scale simulation models. The IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), is a simulation model with global coverage: It is the perfect example of a large-scale simulation model that has faced difficulties applying burdensome uncertainty quantification techniques (e.g. Monte Carlo or quasi-Monte Carlo).

The results from GLOBIOM have been very successful; my proposed method was able to produce high-quality results using only about 4% of the computer and data storage capacities of the above-mentioned existing methods. Since my stay at IIASA, I have successfully applied my proposed method to two other large-scale simulation models. These results are in the process of becoming a scientific publication and hopefully will benefit many other users of large-scale simulation models.

Looking forward, despite computer capacities developing at high speed, in a time of ‘big data’ we can anticipate that simulation models will grow in size and scope to such an extent that more efficient methods will be required.

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.

Closing funding gaps and building bridges with the IIASA network

By Marzena Anna Adamczuk, Development Officer, Office of Sponsored Research, IIASA

YSSP Fund recipients from 2011 to 2018

The 27 fellows smiling at you from the photograph are all part of the IIASA global network of system thinkers thanks to the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) Fund. The YSSP Fund accepts donations from the IIASA community and directs the proceeds to support young scholars who are not eligible to receive a stipend from an IIASA National Member Organization.

The IIASA experience has had a profound influence on the lives of previous recipients, and has brought them closer to answering some of their most pertinent research questions. J. Luke Irwin (2018 YSSP Fund), for example, was able to explore which jobs and skills are the least automation resilient and how policymakers and academic institutions should address future unemployment caused by automation. Another previous beneficiary of the fund, Diana Erazo (2016 YSSP Fund), looked at the transmission dynamics of Chagas disease – one of the most neglected tropical diseases in Latin America – and the most efficient strategies to contain it.

Since its inception in 2011, the YSSP Fund has opened the IIASA door to 27 young researchers from Ethiopia, Thailand, India, China, Colombia, Brazil, and many other countries. All these scholars have since become an important part of the IIASA worldwide network, enriching the institute’s research portfolio and planting the seeds of their newly acquired systems analysis expertise in their home countries.

This bridge-building and door-opening capacity of the YSSP Fund is what inspires many members of the IIASA family to support it every year. Ever since I was appointed as development officer at IIASA in 2014, I have been privileged to accept donations from former IIASA directors, eminent researchers, and renowned experts in a variety of fields. We are all united in our belief that supporting the YSSP Fund is a great investment in future generations of researchers and an important token of trust in IIASA and its flagship capacity-building program.

Many of our alumni donors are former YSSP fellows, who appreciate the impact the program has had on their careers. One of them is Petr Aven, who was part of the first YSSP cohort in 1977 and still remembers this experience as the best time of his life. Some of our alumni, who were themselves recipients of the YSSP Fund scholarship, see it as their duty and privilege to give back. One of our most distinguished donors, Dr. Roger Levien, former director of IIASA and the founder of the YSSP, hopes that his donations will help build a bridge between IIASA and Pardee RAND Graduate School, of which he is an alumnus as well. The motivation behind our most recent pledge from Professors Jyoti and Kirit Parikh is to expose young minds to systems analysis and to promote research-based policymaking.

After the annual fundraising campaign is over and the IIASA network lives up to the challenge for yet another year, I find it very gratifying to be able to channel the support coming from the IIASA community to the YSSP Fund recipients. My favorite time of the year is June when I get to meet the lucky recipients of the scholarships, learn all about their plans and ambitions for the summer at IIASA, and see how motivated they are to make the most of their time at the institute.

However, the real satisfaction kicks in when I see the YSSP Fund fellows thrive in their post-IIASA careers. With immense support from our alumni officer and the Communication Department, we take great pride in sharing their successes with the IIASA worldwide community. We see it as a token of gratitude to both the donors, who opened the IIASA door to them, as well as to their IIASA supervisors, who generously shared their expertise and continue to mentor them after their summer at the institute is over.

Speaking of successes, Gbemi Samuel (2017 YSSP Fund), the first Nigerian to ever participate in the program has recently published a well-received article in the Journal of African Population Studies describing her research on estimating how many children under five could be prevented from dying if women in Nigeria used cleaner fuels to cook their family meals. Lu Liu, a 2016 YSSP Fund recipient published her first-authored paper in Environmental Research Letters and had a poster presentation at the AGU Fall Meeting in Washington D.C. We are also very proud of Zhimin Mao’s (2015 YSSP Fund) post-IIASA career, starting from her IIASA Peccei Award in 2015 and leading up to her current position at the World Bank. We can hardly wait to boast about the successes and accomplishments of our 2018 YSSP Fund fellows and hope they will stay in touch.

Every donation to the YSSP Fund goes a long way. Help us close more funding gaps this summer and support the next generation of system thinkers!

2018 YSSP Fund recipients: (L-R) Ekaterina Antsygina, Luke Irwin, Sara Turner, Fabio Diuana, Ankita Srivastava, Muhammad Nurariffudin, Fumi Harahap

Support the 2019 YSSP Fund

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.

Finding community at the AGU Fall Meeting

By Lu Liu, postdoctoral research associate at Rice University, USA and IIASA YSSP 2016 participant

I have been attending the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting since 2013 when I was working with the Joint Global Change Research Institute. Ever since then, the AGU Fall Meeting has become one of my most anticipated events of the year where I get to share my research and make new friends.

The first time I attended the AGU Fall Meeting, I was overwhelmed with the size and scale of this conference. There are more than 20,000 oral and poster presentations throughout the week, and the topics cover nearly 30 different themes, from earth and space science, to education and public affairs. I was thrilled to see my research being valued and discussed by people from various backgrounds, and I was fascinated by other exciting research and rigorous ideas that emerged at the meeting.

Lu Liu at 2018 AGU poster session

Lu Liu at 2018 AGU poster session

At this year’s AGU, I presented my poster Implications of decentralizing urban water supply infrastructure via direct potable water reuse (DPR) in a session titled Water, Energy, and Society in Urban Systems. In a nutshell, my poster presents a quantitative model that evaluates the cost-benefits of direct potable water reuse in a decentralized water supply system. The concept of decentralization in an urban water system has been discussed in previous literature as an effective approach towards sustainable urban water management. Besides the social and technical barriers in implementing decentralization, there is a lack of analytical and computational tools necessary for the design, characterization, and evaluation of decentralized water supply infrastructure. My study bridges the gap by demonstrating the environmental and economic implications of decentralizing urban water infrastructure via DPR using a modeling framework developed in this study. The quantitative analysis suggests that with the appropriate configuration, decentralized DPR could potentially alleviate stress on freshwater and enhance urban water sustainability and resilience at a competitive cost. More about this research and my other work can be found here: https://emmaliulu.wixsite.com/luliu.

At the AGU Fall Meeting, I engaged in various opportunities to reconnect with old colleagues and build new professional relationships. What’s better than running into my former YSSP supervisors and IIASA colleagues after two years since I left the YSSP? Although my time spent at IIASA was short, I hold IIASA and the YSSP very close to my heart because the influence this experience has had on my professional and personal life is profound.

I will continue to attend the AGU Fall Meeting for the foreseeable future. After all, we all want to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in a community, and I am glad I already found mine.

 

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.

Science without policy is science, but policy without science is gambling

By Géza Tóth, Sustainability Manager Tropical Oils, SBU Ferrero and IIASA alumnus

This famous sentence providing the catchy title for my blog and inspiration throughout my professional career comes from David Grey, who was one of my great mentors at IIASA.

During my seven years at the institute, I had the opportunity to work with several research programs where I had to find my way in various disciplines. Even though I was not the typical modeler, I was fortunate to work with patient tutors and great leaders who were supporting my development and triggering constructive thoughts. I was eager to learn about the crosscutting nature of global challenges and transversal opportunities. As a natural consequence, I found myself migrating between many IIASA programs and roles, constantly on the lookout for new challenges.

I completed a multidisciplinary PhD alongside my regular work at IIASA and changed titles and topics several times. I was into regional development and sustainability dynamics of post-war geographies where you cannot omit any influencing factors, whether it be political, environmental, or socioeconomic in nature. As I look back, I believe my overall results would not be complete without the flexibility and inclusiveness that I had the privilege of experiencing at IIASA.

When I moved into the food industry, I realized that everything I had learnt at IIASA, especially the systems thinking, come in handy when tackling the complex sustainability problems the industry faces. I have always liked connecting dots and fostering collaboration. While it is difficult to pitch policy-relevant research results, I believe there is a clear business case in bringing science and industry closer together.

© Nolimit46 | Dreamstime.com

Our global food supply chains are increasingly untraceable and so we have to connect a multitude of dots. Yet, industry is a very complex animal, driven by powerful shareholder corporations with a clear business agenda. IIASA can predict futures of our declining resources, influencing social aspects, even costs and required investments of businesses. Nevertheless, transforming industry does not depend on scientific facts and publications alone. What we need is to be able to translate scientific findings into innovations that will break current business rules or even disrupt them.

I feel that one of the biggest challenges of industry is to hear and understand the voice of science. Trading is a straightforward business where sustainability can be managed by compliance. As part of my responsibility of managing palm oil supply chain sustainability at Ferrero, I learned that in consumer goods manufacturing, consumers are the main drivers for Corporate Social Responsibility actions and their behavior and consumption patterns are changing.

Severe environmental destruction and unethical labor issues heavily affect the palm oil sector. The production and trade of agricultural commodities follow the rapidly increasing demand for food but, ironically, the amount of food waste and number of hungry people is also tipping. While European policymakers send contradicting messages about whether to eat palm oil or burn it in car engines, the destruction of ancient forests has reached unprecedented levels. Time is of the essence and science must have its voice heard in the language of industry, politicians and consumers. We cannot afford to work in silos. It is time to collaborate and finally link science with people.

The IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) is a unique platform and I am convinced that the positive impact it creates is enormous. Although I was never officially part of the YSSP, I interacted with the participants every year and felt like one of them. Highly skilled young thinkers come together from all around the world, influence and learn from each other under IIASA mentorship and are bound to end up in various disciplines and roles out there. They will surely know how to translate applied science into the right language and channel.

As a family-owned global company, Ferrero is one of the few businesses that is able to make long-term systematic plans and has a successful history of working with a forward looking and constructive vision. Its potential to be a lighthouse model for the industry is enormous and thus its responsibility too. It should therefore come as no surprise that supporting the YSSP program was a natural first step in Ferrero’s collaboration with IIASA.

It is not easy to explain what IIASA does and how it is relevant for the industry. It is equally difficult to illustrate it with good examples. IIASA scientists have however been helping me a lot to identify appropriate channels. I hope there will be more outputs from IIASA in the future that translate science into the business case allowing us in the industry sector to connect more dots.

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.

Creativity: a change in thinking for a sustainable future

Laura Mononen in Passage

Laura Mononen experiencing a creative ”world flow” in the art installation ‘Passage’ by Matej Kren in Bratislava | © Kati Niiles


By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA 2018 Science Communication Fellow

If fashion is the science of appearances, what can beauty and aesthetics tell us about the way we perceive the world, and how it influences us in turn?

From cognitive science research, we know that aesthetics not only influence superficial appearances, but also the deeper ways we think and experience. So, too, do all kinds of creative thinking create change in the same way: as our perceptions of the world around us changes, the world we create changes with them.

From the merchandizing shelves of H&M and Vero Moda to doctoral research at the Faculty of Information Technology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, 2018 YSSP participant Laura Mononen has seen product delivery from all angles. Whether dealing with commercialized goods or intellectual knowledge, Mononen knows that creativity is all about a change in thinking, and changing thinking is all about product delivery.

“During my career in the fashion and clothing industry, I saw the different levels of production when we sent designs to factories, received clothing back, and then persuaded customers to buy them. It was all happening very effectively,” says Mononen.

But Mononen saw potential for product delivery beyond selling people things they don’t need. She wanted to transfer the efficiency of the fashion world in creating changes in thinking to the efforts to build a sustainable world.

“Entrepreneurs make change with products and companies, fashion change trends and sell them. I’m really interested in applying this kind of change to science policy and communication,” says Mononen. “We treat these fields as though they are completely different, but the thing that is common is humans and their thinking and behaving.”

Often, change must happen in our thinking first before we can act. That’s why Mononen is getting her doctorate in cognitive science. Her YSSP project involved heavy analysis of systems theories of creativity to find patterns in the way we think about creativity, which has been constantly changing over time.

In the past, creativity was seen as an ability that was characteristic of only certain very gifted individuals. The research focused on traits and psychological factors. Today, the thinking on creativity has shifted towards a more holistic view, incorporating interactions and relationships between larger systems. Instead of being viewed as a lightning bolt of inspiration, creativity is now seen as more of a gradual process.

New understandings of creativity also call on us to embrace paradoxes and chaos, see ourselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, experience the world through aesthetics, pay careful attention to our perception and how we communicate it, and transmit culture to the next generation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mononen found in her research that the understanding of creativity has changed to be seen as part of a process of self-creation as well as co-creation.

“The way we see creativity also influences ourselves. For example if I ask someone if they are creative, it’s the way they see themselves that influences how creative they are,” says Mononen. “I have found that it’s more crucial to us than I thought, creativity is everywhere and it’s everyday and we are sharing our creativity with others who are using that to do something themselves and so on.”

This means on the one hand that we use our creativity to decide who we are and how we see the world around us for ourselves. But it also means that the outcomes and benefits of creativity are now intended for society as a whole rather than purely for individuals, as it was in the past. It may sound like another paradox, but being able to embrace ambiguity and complexity and take charge of our role in a larger system is important for creating a sustainable future.

“From the IIASA perspective this finding brings hope because the more people see themselves as part of systems of creating things, the more we can encourage sustainable thinking, since nature is a part of the resources we use to create,” says Mononen.

Mononen says a systems understanding of creativity is especially important for people in leadership positions. If a large institution needs new and innovative solutions and technology, but doesn’t have the thinking that values and promotes creativity, then the cooperative, open-minded process of building is stifled.

Working in both the fashion industry and academic research, Mononen has encountered narrow-minded attitudes towards art and science firsthand.

“Communicating your research is very difficult coming from my background, because you don’t know how the other person is interpreting what you say,” says Mononen. “People have different ideas of what fashion and aesthetics are, how important they are and what they do. Additionally, scientific concepts are used differently in different fields.”

“We are often thinking that once we get information out there, then people will understand, but there are much more complex things going on to make change and create influence in settings that combine several different fields.” says Mononen.

For Mononen, the biggest lesson is that creativity can enhance the efforts of science towards a sustainable world simply by encouraging us to be aware of our own thinking, how it differs from that of others, and how it affects all of us.

“When you become more aware of your ways of thinking, you become more effective at communicating,” says Mononen. “It’s not always that way and it’s very challenging, but that’s what the research on creativity from a systems perspective is saying.”

Insights into the future of agriculture from past human climate change responses

Ancestral Puebloans

© Marcus Thomson

By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program

While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.

It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war[1], set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.

Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.

I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International.[2] I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.

We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.

This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.

[1] Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.

[2] Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031