How to achieve scientific excellence

W. Brian Arthur from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), and a former IIASA researcher, talks about increasing returns and the magic formula to get really great science.

Recently, Brian stopped in at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, of which IIASA is a member institution, and spoke to Verena Ahne about his work.

Brian Arthur (© Complexity Science Hub)

Brian Arthur (© Complexity Science Hub)

Brian, now 71, is one of the most influential early thinkers of the SFI, a place that without exaggeration could be called the cradle of complexity science.

Brian became famous with his theory of increasing returns. An idea that has been developed in Vienna, by the way, where Brian was part of a theoretical group at the IIASA in the early days of his career: from 1978 to 1982.

“I was very lucky,” he recalls. “I was allowed to work on what I wanted, so I worked on increasing returns.”

The paper he wrote at that time introduced the concept of positive feedbacks into economy.

The concept of “increasing returns”

Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage. They are mechanisms of positive feedback that operate—within markets, businesses, and industries—to reinforce that which gains success or aggravate that which suffers loss. Increasing returns generate not equilibrium but instability: If a product or a company or a technology—one of many competing in a market—gets ahead by chance or clever strategy, increasing returns can magnify this advantage, and the product or company or technology can go on to lock in the market.”

(W Brian Arthur, Harvard Business Review 1996)

This was a slap in the face of orthodox theories which saw–and some still see–economy in a state of equilibrium. “Kind of like a spiders web,” Brian explains me in our short conversation last Friday, “each part of the economy holding the others in an equalization of forces.”

The answer to heresy in science is that it does not get published. Brian’s article was turned down for six years. Today it counts more than 10.000 citations.

At the latest it was the development and triumphant advance of Silicon Valley’s tech firms that proved the concept true. “In fact, that’s now the way how Silicon Valley runs,” Brian says.

The youngest man on a Stanford chair

William Brian Arthur is Irish. He was born and raised in Belfast and first studied in England. But soon he moved to the US. After the PhD and his five years in Vienna he returned to California where he became the youngest chair holder in Stanford with 37 years.

Five years later he changed again – to Santa Fe, to an institute that had been set up around 1983 but had been quite quiet so far.

Q: From one of the most prestigious universities in the world to an unknown little place in the desert. Why did you do that? 

A: In 1987 Kenneth Arrow, an economics Nobel Prize winner and mentor of mine, said to me at Stanford: We’re holding a small conference in September in a place in the Rockies, in Santa Fe, would you go?

When a Nobel Prize winner asks you such a question, you say yes of course. So I went to Santa Fe.

We were about ten scientists and ten economists at that conference, all chosen by Nobel Prize winners. We talked about the economy as an evolving complex system.

Veni, vidi, vici

Brian came – and stayed: The unorthodox ideas discussed at the meeting and the “wild” and free atmosphere of thinking at “the Institute”, as he calls the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), thrilled him right away.

In 1988 Brian dared to leave Stanford and started to set up the first research program at Santa Fe. Subject was the economy treated as a complex system.

Q: What was so special about SF?

A: The idea of complexity was quite new at that time. But people began to see certain patterns in all sorts of fields, whether it was chemistry or the economy or parts of physics, that interacting elements would together create these patterns…To investigate this in universities with their particular disciplines, with their fixed theories, fixed orthodoxies–where it is all fixed how to do things–turned out to be difficult.

Take the economy for example. Until then people thought it was in an equilibrium. And there we came and proved, no, economics is no equilibrium! The Stanford department would immediately say: You can’t do that! Don’t do that! Or they would consider you to be very eccentric…

So a bunch of senior fellows at Los Alamos in the 1980s thought it would be a good idea if there was an independent institute to research these common questions that came to be called complexity.

At Santa Fe you could talk about any science and any basic assumptions you wanted without anybody saying you couldn’t or shouldn’t do that.

Our group as the first there set a lot of this wild style of research. There were lots of discussions, lots of open questions, without particular disciplines… In the beginning there were no students, there was no teaching. It was all very free.

This wild style became more or less the pattern that has been followed ever since. I think the Hub is following this model too.

The magic formula for excellence

Q: Was this just a lucky concurrence: the right people and atmosphere at the right time? Or is there a pattern behind it that possibly could be repeated?

A: I am sure: If you want to do interdisciplinary science – which complexity is: It is a different way of looking at things! – you need an atmosphere where people aren’t reinforced into all the assumptions of the different disciplines.

This freedom is crucial to excellent science altogether. It worked out not only for Santa Fe. Take the Rand Corporation for instance, that invented a lot of things including the architecture of the internet, or the Bell Labs in the Fifties that invented the transistor. The Cavendish Lab in Cambridge is another one, with the DNA or nuclear astronomy…

The magic formula seems to be this:

  • First get some first rate people. It must be absolutely top-notch people, maybe ten or twenty of them.
  • Make sure they interact a lot.
  • Allow them to do what they want – be confident that they will do something important.
  • And then when you protect them and see that they are well funded, you are off and running.

Probably in seven cases out of ten that will not produce much. But quite a few times you will get something spectacular – game changing things like quantum theory or the internet.

Don’t choose programs, choose people

Q: This does not seem to be the way officials are funding science…

A: Yes, in many places you have officials telling people what they need to research. Or where people insist on performance and indices… especially in Europe, I have the impression, you have a tradition of funding science by insisting on all these things like indices and performance and publications or citation numbers. But that’s not a very good formula.

Excellence is not measurable by performance indicators. In fact that’s the opposite of doing science.

I notice at places where everybody emphasize all this they are not on the forefront. Maybe it works for standard science; and to get out the really bad science. But it doesn’t work if you want to push boundaries.

Many officials don’t understand that.

In Singapore the authorities once asked me: How did you decide on the research projects in Santa Fe? I said, I didn’t decide on the research projects. They repeated their question. I said again, I did not decide on the research projects. I only decided on people. I got absolutely first rate people, we discussed vaguely the direction we wanted things to be in, and they decided on their research projects.

That answer did not compute with them. They are the civil service, they are extraordinarily bright, they’ve got a lot of money. So they think they should decide what needs to be researched.

I should have told them – I regret I didn’t: This is fine if you want to find solutions for certain things, like getting the traffic running or fixing the health care system. Surely with taxpayer’s money you have to figure such things out. But you will never get great science with that. All you get is mediocrity.

Of course now they asked, how do we decide which people should be funded? And I said: “You don’t! Just allow top people to bring in top people. Give them funding and the task of being daring.”

Any other way of managing top science doesn’t seem to work.

I think the Hub could be such a place – all the ingredients are here. Just make sure to attract some more absolutely first rate people. If they are well funded the Hub will put itself on the map very quickly.

This interview was originally published on

Parched: The war for water in Mexico City

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

Mexico City has been experiencing a major water crisis in the last few decades and it is only getting worse. To keep the water flowing, the city imports large amounts of water from as far as 150 kilometers.

Not only is this energy-intensive and expensive, it creates conflict with the indigenous communities in the donor basins. Over the last decade, a growing number of these communities have been protesting to reclaim their rights to water resources.

The ancient city of Tenochtitlan as depicted in a mural by Diego Rivera
(cc) Wikimedia Commons

As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Francine van den Brandeler studied the struggle that Mexico City is facing as it tries to provide water to its growing population and expanding economy. Local aquifers have been over-exploited, so water needs to be imported from distant sources, with high economic, social, and environmental impacts. Van den Brandeler’s study assesses the effectiveness of water use rights in promoting sustainable water use and reducing groundwater exploitation in the city.

“A few centuries back, Tenochtitlan, the place where Mexico City stands today, was known as the lake city,” says Van den Brandeler. The Aztecs had developed a sophisticated system of dikes and canals to manage water and mitigate floods. However, that changed quickly with the arrival of the Spaniards, who transformed the natural hydrology of the valley. As the population continued to grow over the next centuries, providing drinking water became an increasing challenge, along with controlling floods. As the lake dried up, people pumped water from the ground and built increasingly large infrastructure to bring water from other areas.

Communities from lower-income groups, living in informal settlements on the outskirts of the metropolitan region are more vulnerable to this scarcity. Many live on just few liters of water every day, and do not have access to the main water supply network, instead relying on water trucks which charge several times the price of water from the public utility.

“In wealthier areas people consume much more than the average European does every day. It is a question of power and politics,” says van den Brandeler. “The voices of marginalized communities go unheard.”

Many people rely on delivery service for drinking water.
© Angela Ostafichuk | Shutterstock

The more one learns about the situation, the more complicated it becomes. The import of water started in the 1940’s. But with a massive increase in population in the last couple of decades, the deficits have become much worse.

The government’s approach has been to find more water rather than rehabilitating or reusing local surface and groundwater sources, or increasing water use efficiency, says van den Brandeler. Therefore wells are being drilled deeper and deeper—as much as 2000 meters into the ground—as the water runs out.

Some people have started initiatives to harvest rainwater, but it is not considered a viable solution by those in charge. “A lot of it has to do with their worldview and general paradigm. The people working at the National Water Commission and the Water Utility of Mexico City have been trained as engineers to make large dams and put pipes in the ground. They don’t believe in small-scale solutions. In their opinion when millions of people are concerned, such solutions cannot work,” says van den Brandeler.
Although the city gets plenty of rain during the rainy season, it goes directly into the drainage system which is linked to the sewage system. This contaminates the water, making it unusable. At the same time, almost 40% of the water in Mexico City’s piped networks is lost due to leakages.

Policy procedures and institutional functioning also remain top-down and opaque, van den Brandeler has found. One of the policy tools for curbing excess water use are water permits for bulk use, for agriculture, industry, or public utilities supplying water. Introduced in the 1940s, lack of proper enforcement has created misuse and conflicts.
For example, while farmers also require a permit that specifies the volume of water they may use each year, they do not pay for their water usage. However, it is difficult to monitor if farmers are extracting water according to the conditions in the permit. Since they do not pay a usage fee, there is also less incentive for the National Water Commission to monitor them. As a result, a huge black market has cropped up in the city where property owners and commercial developers pay exorbitant prices to buy water permits from those who have a license. Since the government allows the exchange of permits between two willing parties, they make it appear above-board. However, it has contributed to the inequalities in water distribution in the city.

With the water crisis worsening every year, Mexico City needs to find a solution before it runs out of water completely. Van den Brandeler is hopeful for a better future as she studies the contributing factors to the problem. She hopes that the water use permits are better enforced and users are given stronger incentives to respect their allocated water quotas. Further, if greater efforts are made within the metropolis to repair decaying infrastructure and scale up alternatives such as rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse, the city won’t have to look at expensive solutions if adopted in a decentralized manner.

About the Researcher

Francine van den Brandeler is a third year PhD student at the University of Amsterdam in Netherlands. Her research is on the spatial mismatches between integrated river basin management and metropolitan water governance – the incompatibility of institutions and biophysical systems-, which can lead to fragmented water policy outcomes. Fragmented decision-making cannot adequately address the issues of sustainability and social inclusion faced by megacities in the Global South. She aims to assess the effectiveness of policy instruments to overcome this mismatch and suggest recommendations for policy (re)design. At IIASA she was part of the Water Program and worked under the supervision of Sylvia Tramberend and Water Program Director Simon Langan.

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.

Cornelius Hirsch: Digging into foreign investment in agriculture

By Parul Tewari, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

Two things are distinctly noticeable when you meet Cornelius Hirsch—a cheerful smile that rarely leaves his face and the spark in his eyes as he talks about issues close to his heart. The range is quite broad though—from politics and economics to electronic music.

Cornelius Hirsch

After finishing high school, Hirsch decided to travel and explore the world. This paid off quite well. It was during his travels, encompassing Hong Kong, New Zealand, and California, that Hirsch started taking a keen interest in economic and political systems. This sparked his curiosity and helped him decide that he wanted to take up economics for higher studies. Therefore, after completing his masters in agricultural economics, Hirsch applied for a position as a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research and enrolled in the PhD-program of the Vienna University of Economics and Business to study trade, globalization, and its impact on rural areas. Currently, he is looking at subsidies and tariffs for farmers and the agricultural sector at a global scale.

As part of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program at IIASA, Hirsch is digging a little deeper to analyze how foreign direct investments (FDI) in agricultural land operate. “Since 2000, the number of foreign land acquisitions have been growing—governmental or private players buy a lot of land in different countries to produce crops. I was interested in knowing why there are so many of these hotspots in the world— sub-Saharan Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia—why are people investing in these areas?,” says Hirsch.

Farming in one of the large agricultural areas in Indonesia ©CIFOR I Flickr

Increased food demand from a growing world population is leading to an increased rate of investment in agriculture in regions with large stretches of fertile land. That these regions are largely rain-fed make them even more attractive for investors as they save the cost of expensive irrigation services. In fact, Hirsch argues that “the term land-grabbing is misleading. It should actually be water-grabbing as water is the foremost deciding factor—even more important than simply land abundance.”

Some researchers have found an interesting contrast between FDI in traditional sectors, such as manufacturing, and the ones in agricultural land. While investors in the former look for stable institutions and good governmental efficiency, FDI in land deals seems to target regions with less stable institutions. This positive relationship between corruption and FDI is completely counterintuitive. Hirsch says that one reason could be that “sometimes weaker institutions are easier to get through when it comes to such vast amount of lands. A lot of times these deals and contracts are oral and have no written proof—the contracts are not transparent anyway.”

For example in South Sudan, the land and soil conditions seem to be so good that investors aren’t deterred despite conflicts due to corrupt practices or inefficient government agencies.

One of the indigenous communities in Madagascar, a place which is vulnerable to land acquisitions © IamNotUnique I Flickr

One area that often goes unnoticed is the violation of land rights of indigenous communities. If a government body decides to sell land or give out production licenses to investors for leasing the land without consulting the actual community, it is only much later that the affected community finds out that their land has been given away. Left with no land and hence no source of livelihood, these communities are forced to migrate to urban areas.

A strain of concern enters his voice as Hirsch talks about the impact. “Land as big as two times the area of Ecuador has been sold off in the past—but it accounts for a tiny percentage of the global production area.” With rising incomes and greater consumption of meat, a lot of land is used to produce animal feed crops. “This is a very inefficient way of using land,” he says.

During the summer program at IIASA, Hirsch is generating data that will help him look at these deals in detail and analyze the main factors that are taken into consideration before finalizing a land deal. At the moment he is only able to give an overview of land-grabbing at the global level. With more data on the location of the deals he can look at the factors that influence these decisions in the first place such as the proximity between the two countries involved in agricultural investments and the size of their economies.

While there is always huge media coverage when a scandal about these land acquisitions comes out in the open, Hirsch seems determined to dig deeper and uncover the dynamics involved.

About the researcher
Cornelius Hirsch is a research associate at the Austrian Institute of Economics and Research (WIFO). At IIASA he is working under the supervision of Tamas Krisztin and Linda See in the Ecosystems Services and Management Program (ESM).

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.

Interview: A look back at the Young Scientists Summer Program

Former IIASA Director Roger Levien started the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) in the summer of 1977. After 40 years the program remains one of the institute’s most successful initiatives.

The idea for the YSSP came out of your own experience as a summer student at The RAND Corporation during your graduate studies. How did that experience inspire you to start the YSSP?
At RAND I was introduced to systems analysis and to working with colleagues from many different disciplines: mathematics, computer science, foreign policy, and economics. After that summer, I changed from a Master’s in Operations Research to a PhD program in Applied Mathematics and moved from MIT to Harvard, because I knew that I needed a broad doctorate to be a RAND systems analyst.

From that point on, I carried the knowledge that a summer experience at a ripe time in one’s life, as one is choosing their post university career, can be life transforming. It certainly was for me.

Roger Levien, left, with the first IIASA director Howard Raiffa, right. ©IIASA Archives

Why did you think IIASA would be a good place for such a summer program?
When I thought about such a program within the context of IIASA, it seemed to me that it would offer an even richer experience than mine at RAND. I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring young scientists from many nations  together in their graduate-program years at IIASA. At that time, systems analysis was not well-known anywhere outside of the United States, and even there it was not very well known. In universities interdisciplinary research, and especially applied policy research, was almost nonexistent.

This would be an opportunity to introduce systems analysis to graduate students from around the world, who were otherwise deeply involved in a single discipline. It would be fruitful to bring them together to learn about the uses of scientific analysis to address policy issues, and about working  both across disciplines and across nationalities.

What was your vision for the program?
I hoped that these students, who had been introduced to systems analysis at IIASA, would become an international network of analysts sharing a common understanding of international policy problems. And in the future, at international negotiations on issues of public policy, sitting behind the diplomats around the table would be technical experts, many of whom had been graduate students at IIASA, having worked on the same issue in a non-political international and interdisciplinary setting. At IIASA they would have developed a common language, a common way of thought, and perhaps working together at the negotiation they could use their shared view to help their seniors achieve success.  A pipe dream perhaps, but also an ideal and a vision of what people from different countries and different disciplines who had studied the same problem with an international system analysis approach could accomplish.

Social activities have been an important component of the YSSP since the beginning ©IIASA Archives

The program is celebrating its 40th year. Why do you think it has been so successful?
I think there are many reasons for success. But for one thing, it’s my impression that just having 50 enthusiastic young scientists around brings an infusion of energy, which is a great boost to the institute. The young scientists also bring findings and methods on the cutting edges of their disciplines to IIASA.

What would be your advice to young scientists coming this summer for the 2017 program
It would be to engage as deeply as you can and as broadly as you can. This is an opportunity to learn about many things that aren’t on the curriculum of any university program. So, now’s the time to engage not only with other disciplines, but with people from other nations, to get their perspective. The people you meet this summer can be lifelong contacts. They  can be your friends for life, your colleagues for life, and the opportunities that will open through them, though unpredictable, are bound to be invaluable, both professionally and personally.

This is a learning experience of an entirely different type from the typical graduate program, which goes deeper and deeper into a single discipline. You have a unique opportunity to go broader and wider, culturally, intellectually, and internationally.

 IIASA will be celebrating the YSSP 40th Anniversary with an event for alumni on June 20-21, 2017.

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

Arctic in the spotlight

By Anni Reissell, IIASA Arctic Futures Initiative

It is that time of the year again – in late summer and early fall the media is covering the Arctic sea ice extent. Whether it is another record-breaking low like 2005, 2007, or 2012, or in second place, like this year (see for example New York Times, Guardian), the news is not good.

The minimum Arctic sea ice extent this year tied for second-lowest. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The minimum Arctic sea ice extent this year tied for second-lowest. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

And again, we hear many speculations on when we will start to experience an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summertime. Will it be 2030, 2050?

Are we stuck in keeping track and recording, observing the change, how fast or slow it is from year to another? Or is something different this year?

I believe that yes, there is a bit of a difference – and a bit more hope. We are in the post-Paris climate agreement (COP21) and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) world.

Today, 48% of 196 nations have formally bound their governments to the Paris agreement, and it is anticipated that by the end of the year, the required 55 nations responsible for 55% of emissions globally will have formally committed to the Paris agreement. This is when the agreement takes legal force, although implementation is another issue and a new story.

I attend scientific meetings, and meetings gathering science, policy, and business stakeholders. Way too often when I attend those meetings, the participants again state that we must do this and we must do that, but they are not prepared to give concrete help and concrete suggestions. They do not talk about the possibility to commit themselves to anything other than stating the need or supervising the statement of needs, leaving the planning of implementation and search for resources happily to some unnamed others.

The Arctic today is in the spotlight not just in the sense that the world’s attention is briefly focused there: it is melting fast under the effect of a variety of physical forces that concentrate warming in the Arctic region. What could we do to help cool the Arctic more quickly?

Melting sea ice in the Arctic, during a 2011 research cruise. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Melting sea ice in the Arctic, during a 2011 research cruise. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through agreements and voluntary implementation by nations, ramping up the use of renewable energy sources and developing new technology, and then waiting for greenhouse gases to decrease in the atmosphere–this will all take a long time. And it will be much longer before we experience the impacts of the emissions reductions. But in parallel to these slow but indispensable developments, there are faster ways of helping out the Arctic in particular. And as a co-benefit, we can clean the air, improve our health, helping the rest of the world as well.

About 25% of the current warming of the Arctic is attributed to black carbon, that is, soot coming from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels.

The main culprit for the man-made black carbon in the Arctic surface atmosphere is gas flaring, wasteful burning of gas in the oil and gas industry. Gas flaring has been found to contribute to 42% of the annual mean black carbon surface concentrations in the Arctic, hence dominating the black carbon emissions north of 66oN.

A large part of the warming experienced in the Arctic is due to black carbon emissions from the eight Arctic nations and the region north of approximately 40oN, including European Union, Russia, Ukraine, China, Canada, and part of the USA.

The USA and Canada have agreed to end routine gas flaring by 2030. My hope is that the IIASA Arctic Futures Initiative could get together science, policy and business stakeholders from the Arctic nations in order to tackle this problem, with other concerned parties, and with countries not yet involved in discussions.

Stohl, A., Aamaas, B., Amann, M., et. al. (2015). Evaluating the climate and air quality impacts of short-lived pollutants, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 15, 10529-10566, doi:10.5194/acp-15-10529-2015, 2015.

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.