Learning global-scale modelling in a castle in Europe

Camila Ludovique – personal archive.

By Camila Ludovique, research assistant CAPES/IIASA Sandwich Doctorate

I come from Brazil, more specifically from the Energy Planning Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, that postcard city that most of you may have already seen in pictures, with gorgeous mountains beside the ocean, the sunsets…

But, on the ground we have many problems, as do all the major cities in the developing world, including a high increase in the population, about 11 % in the last decade, who require transport services work, housing, leisure and happiness.

However, higher than the increase in Rio’s population was the increase in its automobile fleet, around 110%, to supply the demand for transport in the city. The result: immobility, traffic jam, environment degradation and loss of quality of life. Then, one day I realized: something needs to be done to transform the business-as-usual scenario!

I started to wonder, how can we develop a society that is more sustainable? How can the transport passenger sector play its role in the decarbonization of economy? Moreover, how can we answer these questions?

By building mathematical models, which try to simulate the real dynamic of full economies, to assess different strategies towards a low-carbon transport system. In this way, we can try to help politicians to understand the emissions problem in a quantitative framework. We can build a dialogue, supported by numbers and evidence on the effectiveness of different policies, measures, and actions to reduce CO2 emissions from the transport sector.

Articulating this complex issue in the context of mathematical language allows us to expand the boundaries of our mental models and ideas, define them and generate scenarios to figure out what that means in practice. The models will not  give us the answer – all models are wrong – but they will give us insights that improve our mental models and the mental models of all the people who need to be involved in order for change to happen, so that people are empowered with effective policies with good leverage to go out there and make a difference. This is what makes some models useful.

And that is why IIASA appears in my life…

Choosing IIASA

Here at IIASA we have researchers and expertise from all around the world, allowing us to develop mathematical models to transform science into actions and to achieve better levels of sustainability in our world.

Being a little bit more technical, there are many examples of how and where emissions from transport have been accounted for through modelling approaches, but, roughly, we can say that there are main two types of models – the top-down and the bottom-up approach.

The bottom-up approach builds the model through more desegregated data. This means, for example, that you can differentiate the emissions pattern between the weeks and the weekends, so you can have a better understanding of the behavior and activities of human beings inside your model, which leads to more realistic outcomes.

The top-down approach uses more aggregated levels of indicators, such as the average distance in kilometers traveled per capita of a country in a year, known as PKT in the transport sector. This is just one value to represent the whole population, which doesn’t allow us to see very detailed patterns of human activity, but it allows us to see much further, around the whole globe, and compare how each region may evolve. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach cannot see a big region without losing the capabilities of a desegregated model.

I used to say that one is myopic and the other has astigmatism. How can we solve this dilemma?

Working with both… and that is why IIASA benefits me

The institute has an important and famous top-down model, the Model for Energy Supply Strategy Alternatives and their General Environmental Impact, better known as MESSAGE. It which provides core inputs for major international assessments, such as the IPCC, and here I am – in this castle in Europe, learning how to model in a global scale.

Besides that, I am also developing a bottom-up model that applies big data to assess the urban passenger emissions in Rio de Janeiro, creating a tool that seeks to answer how we can achieve the transition paths to reduce the carbon footprint of the transport sector, and how much it will cost. This will help my country develop strategies towards sustainable mobility and a better quality of life for Brazilians who live in Rio de Janeiro, or those who travel to that wonderful city.

Why apply for the IIASA doctorate program?

IIASA is not in Vienna itself, it is in Laxenburg, a small village south of Vienna, which means if you want to live in the city, you must travel. But, if that is not a problem for you, I really would recommend IIASA for you!

IIASA has good infrastructure, and there are great people from all over the world, all friendly. There are many activities in the summer time, that even offer free beer! There is also the mountain club, the music club, a great park to run in, or walk in, which is full of nature. For sure, it is a good place to live and finalize your long life of studies. Come to make part of this history.

Applications for the 2019 IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program opened on 1 September 2018 and will run until 15 October 2018. Candidates have to apply to both CAPES (on the CAPES website) and IIASA. Successful applicants will be informed of the selection results by mid-December 2018. Selected candidates are expected to take up their position at IIASA between March and October 2019.

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.

 

My experience as a postdoc at IIASA

Julian Hunt – personal archive.

Julian Hunt is a postdoc at IIASA and part of the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) scheme. 

My postdoctoral research consists of looking at the world potential and costs of storing energy and water with large-scale pumped-storage plants. This consists of developing computational models using world topographical and hydrological data to develop all possible projects in the world. The results from my research could then be used by countries to analyze the viability of building seasonal pumped-storage for short, medium, and long-term energy storage needs and to improve the water management of the country.

I first heard about IIASA at the Vienna Energy Forum in 2010, when I was doing an internship at UNIDO. I got the impression that IIASA was a major contributor to the science that supports major claims by the UN. This led me to start reading about IIASA’s projects and follow its research. I did not think twice when I received an invitation to apply for the IIASA-CAPES fellowship, which gave me a chance to join the institute and develop my own high impact research. One thing that might stop Brazilian people from applying for this scholarship is because the native language in Austria is German. However, IIASA’s working language is English and in Vienna most people speak English.

IIASA focuses on applied and high impact research at a global scale. Prior to my experience at IIASA, I used to develop new technologies looking only at one or a few cases studies. This limited the research to a small readership, which would think that the technology could only be implemented in one location. With the experience I had at IIASA, I learned to combine my technological expertise with computer modelling and Geographic Information System in most of my work. This considerably increased the readership and impact of my research, and citations of my papers.

Working at IIASA you can focus only on your research. Normally when doing research at universities you might have to give lectures and supervise students. This reduces the important focus on research. At IIASA the main activities are to research, publish articles and scientific reports, present your work at conferences, collaborate with other research institutes, develop projects and so on. The main activities of a researcher. Similarly to universities, there is always finger food (free lunch) available, but the quality is much better.

IIASA is located close to Vienna, which is a beautiful, lively, and affordable and city. Vienna was voted the best city to live in the world and I agree with this. Another important aspect is the social life. IIASA has a very active social life, which includes regular events and parties, different societies (music club, running club), an active Staff Association (STAC) and the possibility of making friends from around the world. Becoming IIASA alumni will also open doors for your future. For example, the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), brings around 50 of the best researchers in the world every year to IIASA. This results in a large network of IIASA alumni researchers.

I highly recommend that researchers, fluent in English, who want to give a huge boost to their research career, learn a lot of valuable methodologies, solve holistic and complex problems, make good friends, and increase their network should apply for a research position at IIASA.


Applications for the 2019 IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program opened on 1 September 2018 and will run until 15 October 2018. Candidates have to apply to both CAPES (on the CAPES website) and IIASA. Successful applicants will be informed of the selection results by mid-December 2018. Selected candidates are expected to take up their position at IIASA between March and October 2019.

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.

Interview: A great opportunity for Brazilian PhD students and postdocs

Rafael Morais

Rafael Morais is a recent participant in the IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program, he spent nine months at IIASA working in the Energy program.

In 2016, the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) partnered with IIASA on a new initiative offering support to doctoral and postdoctoral researchers interested in collaborating with established IIASA researchers. As part of this initiative, IIASA and CAPES annually offer up to three fellowships for Brazilian PhD students to spend three to twelve months at IIASA as part of the joint IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program, as well as up to four postdoc fellowships that enable Brazilian researchers to work at IIASA for up to 24 months.

Rafael Morais, a PhD candidate at the Energy Planning Program of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, was part of the first group of Brazilian PhD students funded by CAPES to participate in this program. He spent nine months with the Energy Program at IIASA in 2017. We recently caught up with him and asked him about his research and what the fellowship has meant to him:

What is your PhD research about?

My research involves modeling the contribution of renewable energy sources in electric systems. My doctorate thesis includes a case study on Brazil, where we have large potential for wind and solar power generation in various regions. My main objective is to investigate how total costs develop considering the number of wind and solar plants in the Brazilian electricity system.

Why did you choose IIASA for your doctorate program (over other places)?

I chose IIASA because it is a very reputable think tank for energy and model development. People are very capable and well prepared. They have been working on energy systems modeling for many years, and their experience motivated my decision to come to IIASA. I talked with some people that were at IIASA before me and they were all very grateful for the experience. Another important factor was that it is an international institute, where one can have contact with people from many different countries, and the main language is English.

Rafael Morais

How did your participation in the program benefit you?

I had the opportunity to get into contact with diverse approaches to my research questions, thus enriching my thesis. Unlike my home institution, IIASA does not have only energy experts, but also computer scientists, mathematicians, and physics experts, all working in the same group, and all contributing to a great modeling team. Being here was an excellent opportunity to collaborate with them. As my first experience abroad, it was also a chance for me to grow and develop other skills, both on a professional and a personal level.

Would you recommend that people apply for the IIASA-CAPES doctorate program?

Yes, I would definitely recommend it! IIASA is a very nice place to work. People really care about a harmonious work environment, and IIASA staff are always available to help you with any issue. Apart from that, the people that I worked with during my time here are very knowledgeable and kind. In short, it was a great experience being at IIASA for nine months during my PhD.

Applications for the 2019 IIASA-CAPES Doctorate Sandwich Program and Postdoctoral Fellowship Program opened on 1 September 2018 and will run until 15 October 2018. Candidates have to apply to both CAPES (on the CAPES website) and IIASA. Successful applicants will be informed of the selection results by mid-December 2018. Selected candidates are expected to take up their position at IIASA between March and October 2019.

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!

Are all types of foreign investment driven by the same factors? The case for Mexico

By Isela-Elizabeth Tellez-Leon, IIASA-CONACYT postdoc in the Advanced Systems Analysis, Evolution and Ecology, and Risk and Resilience programs.

The rise of foreign investment in emerging economies after the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 has renewed interest in what drives such investment. My colleague at the Central Bank of Mexico and I examined the determinants of foreign investment, known as capital flows, into Mexico in 1995-2015, a period characterized by a free-floating exchange rate, that is, the authorities did not set an exchange rate.

Our research has useful findings for the design of economic policies because it provides measures that authorities can take to direct proper functioning of the economy. It also contributes to improved understanding of what influences capital flows into Mexico. We analyzed the determinants of each type of foreign investment separately, because different financial flows respond differently to the various external and internal factors. Mexico is an interesting case study because it experienced a large volume of capital investment after the commercial opening in the 1990s and more recently in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, as international investors were searching for high yields and security. In addition, the trading volume of Mexican government securities is one of the highest among emerging markets.

Capital flows are incorporated into financial accounts where foreign transactions are noted—including investments by foreign residents into Mexican public and private sector securities and by domestic residents in foreign securities. Mexico’s financial accounts (Figure 1) are composed of the following three components: portfolio investment (in terms of liquidity—i.e., the extent to which a market allows assets to be bought and sold at stable prices—this is a short-term investment, Figure 2), other investment (Figure 3), and foreign direct investment (in terms of liquidity this is a long-term investment, Figure 4).

The financial account is divided into three main areas: foreign direct investment (FDI), portfolio investment (PI) and other investment (OI). Figure 1 shows the net flows of foreign investment. Figure 2 displays portfolio investment (PI) and its components of domestic and foreign investors. Figure 3 and 4 show OI and FDI split into their different components. The figures show moving averages over 4 quarters adjusted for seasonality. Source: Elizabeth Tellez and the Central Bank of Mexico.

Portfolio and other investments tend to leave and enter a country quicker than foreign direct investment; thus, they are likely to respond faster to shocks. In particular, portfolio investment by foreign agents might have a different response compared to portfolio investment by domestic agents. For example, if foreign investors have timely information about the external economic conditions, they will likely respond faster to foreign shocks.

In general, foreign investment has an impact on developing economies in at least two ways. On the one hand, international borrowing allows a country to increase investment in the private sector, without sacrificing consumption. On the other hand, large foreign investment flows may be followed by increases in the prices of goods and services because of the strength of the exchange rate. In turn, this increases purchases of foreign products (imports), but exports decrease. In this way, a country’s foreign trade may become more vulnerable to external shocks and reversals of foreign investment.

Central Bank of Mexico © Elizabeth Tellez.

To analyze what determines capital flows in the short and medium term for Mexico, we used an econometric model known as Vector Autoregression. This model allows us to examine the impacts of different shocks on capital flows. We studied two sets of factors that can encourage investors to shift resources to emerging markets. The first set considers external shocks (push factors), which are beyond the control of developing countries, such as foreign interest rates or economic activity in advanced countries.

The push factors we examined were global risk, US liquidity, US GDP, and US interest rates. The second set of factors are the prevailing economic conditions in the emerging economy (pull factors). For these we considered Mexican GDP, interest rates, inflation, and exchange rates.

One of our main findings is that investors are risk averse and prefer to invest abroad when foreign interest rates are higher. Portfolio investment (PI) and other investment (OI) seem more responsive to short-term shocks than foreign direct investment (FDI), possibly because they tend to be more liquid than FDI. We also found that domestic conditions play a role in explaining capital flows. For instance, we found that higher GDP growth leads to higher portfolio investment, while higher interest rates and lower inflation generate higher inflows of other investment. Our work underlines the benefits of separately analyzing the components of capital flows. For instance, a shock to the federal funds rate has important effects on portfolio investment in public-sector securities by foreign residents. This is because public securities are the closest substitutes to US government bonds found in the Mexican financial market.

Reference:

Raul IR & Tellez Leon E (2017). Are all types of capital flows driven by the same factors? Evidence from Mexico. Banco de Mexico, Mexico.

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.