My postdoc experience at IIASA

By Nandita Saikia, Assistant Professor of Population Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and former postdoctoral researcher at IIASA

IIASA alumna Nandita Saikia, looks back on the two years that she spent living in Austria while working as a postdoctoral researcher in the World Population Program.

The submission of my PhD thesis, marriage, taking up a university position, and becoming a mother, all happened rather quickly for me. By the time I realized that I wanted to experience working outside of my own country, a good five years had flown by from the day that I received my PhD. For a female academic, who is trying to balance family and work, a decision to move abroad was never going to be easy. It needed a lot of planning, not only in terms of the research topic that I wanted to pursue, but also in terms of organizing things in a way that would lead to the least disruption for the research students I was supervising and of course, my family.

Nandiita Saikia | © Nandita Saikia

With little hope and many conditions, I searched for postdoctoral positions on the websites of various institutes. I was amazed when I found an advertisement for a postdoc position at IIASA, which mentioned that it had extended application deadlines for another 18 months – specifically to accommodate female candidates on maternity leave. This gender sensitive rule made my application possible, and ultimately gave me a rich experience and memories that I will cherish forever.

Looking back at the past two years at IIASA, a long list of reasons why this was such an amazing time of my and my family’s lives, comes to mind. The institute is housed in a beautiful two hundred and seventy five year old castle in Laxenburg just outside of Vienna. As an IIASA employee, my family and I could access the green imperial park once meant for Austria’s iconic empress Sissi, at any time. Apart from massive, century old trees that may have shaded Sissi on her own visits, the park contains a spring, a waterfall, and a lake with numerous monuments to Austrian royal families that frequented it over the centuries. The lush green trees, the musical sound of the spring, together with chirping wild ducks and swans, the Laxenburg castles, the tall yellow church under the deep blue sky – all constantly stimulated the spirit of a nature lover like me.

In terms of the more practical aspects of working at IIASA, staff from administration were always available to address all our personal and professional issues efficiently and warmly. We were supported with everything from extending our visas, finding a suitable place to live, and communicating with my son’s school in German, to locating the right physician. The IIASA Communication Department also helped me to convey the meaning of my research in “non-technical language” to a wider audience, for whom the findings are ultimately meant.

The soul of IIASA is truly international and inter-disciplinary. From North to South, East to West, I met colleagues from all parts of the world. The overall research environment is conducive to doing quality research. Our program director, Wolfgang Lutz, extended all possible support for me to stay at IIASA for two years. I however still had enough freedom to manage my responsibilities in terms of the supervision of my PhD students back in India.

IIASA always encourages its employees to be active and fit and supports them to do this in numerous ways. There are a number of clubs and activities on offer, including yoga, a music club, a running club, a swimming club, cycling, German lessons, aerobics, and a tennis club. The institute also maintains a gym for staff members. Some of my colleagues even kept workout clothes in the office for when they could manage to participate in some of these activities amidst their busy schedules. Although it was of course not possible to be in all the clubs, you had a choice, which contributed to the overall “feel good” environment.  Being an international research organization, IIASA celebrates the different cultures of its staff members by organizing themed social gatherings like Asia Day, Latin American Day, Canada Day, and Mediterranean Day, to name a few, during which staff have the chance to taste authentic homemade cuisines and see cultural music or dance performances by colleagues. My heart knew no bounds when I got a chance to perform a Bollywood number and an Indian folk dance with my international colleagues!

I also developed an affinity with the IIASA Women in Science Club, which often organized “Meet, Greet and Eat” sessions during which we had the opportunity to interact with established women scientists in an informal way. It was indeed an eye opener to learn about how they overcame common challenges either in their early or later careers.

During our stay, we fully experienced life in Vienna, which has repeatedly been ranked as the best city in the world to live in. The centrality of Vienna also helped us to explore many neighboring countries. In our second year, we lived in Laxenburg where we felt very much at home. We loved how smoothly the little town runs while offering everything needed for a high quality life when raising young children.

Our time at IIASA was extremely productive, but we still felt as if we were in Vienna for a two-year long vacation! If someone asks me whether they should consider IIASA for a post doc or the Young Scientists Summer Program, my answer will be: “Yes, don’t even think twice!”

Nandita Saikia was a postdoctoral researcher at IIASA from 2017 to 2019. More information available at

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.

Reimagining the workforce of the future

© SasinTipchai | Shutterstock

By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow

Science fiction depicts the future with a combination of fascination and fear. While artificial intelligence (AI) could take us beyond the limits of human error, dystopic scenes of world domination reveal our greatest fear: that humans are no match for machines, especially in the job market. But in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, often known as Industry 4.0, the line between future and fiction is a thread of reality.

Over the next 13 years, impending automation could force as many as 70 million workers in the US to find another way to make money. The role of technology is not only growing but also demanding a completely new way of thinking about the work we do and our impact on society because of it.

Rather than focusing on which jobs will disappear because of technological disruption, we could be identifying the most resilient tasks within jobs, says J. Luke Irwin, 2018 YSSP participant. His research in the IIASA World Population program uses a role- and task-based analysis to investigate professions that will be most resilient to technological disruption, with the hope of guiding workforce development policy and training programs.

“We are getting better and better at programming algorithms for machines to do things that we thought were really only in the realm of humans,” says Irwin. “The amount of disruption that’s going to happen to the work industry in the next ten years is really going to impact everyone.”

However, the fear and instability created by the potential disruption elicit chaos, and the response is hard to organize into constructive action. While the resources remain untapped, creativity and imagination are wasted on speculation instead of preparation.

“I couldn’t stand that there’s all this great evidence-based work out there about how we can improve people’s lives and no one is using it,” said Irwin, “I’m trying to align a lot of research and put it in a place where you can compare it and make it more useful and more transferable between the people who would be talking about this: educators, policymakers, employers, and anybody in the workforce.”

Using a German dataset with vocational training as well as time and task information, Irwin will break down jobs into the specific cognitive and physical skills involved and rank the durability of each skill.

Based on the identified jobs and skills, Irwin will go on to draw connections between labor-force capabilities and education policies. His goal is to scale the findings of the most resilient skills to the German labor system so that policymakers and academic institutions can retrain currently displaced workforces and reimagine the future of human work.

After all, while about half the duties workers currently handle could be automated, Mckinsey Global Institute suggests that less than 5% of occupations could be entirely taken over by computers. The future of predictable, repetitive, and purely quantitative work may be threatened, but automation could also open the door for occupations we can’t even imagine yet.

“I think people are amazing and that they have a lot more potential than we are currently capable of fulfilling,” says Irwin.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children today will end up in careers that don’t even exist yet. For now, an increasingly self-employed millennial generation works insecure, unprotected jobs. The new gig economy, characterized by temporary contracted positions, offers independence but also instability in the labor market.

Without stable work, people lose a sense of security, and that can be dangerous for a policy system that isn’t built to handle uncertainty.

The last industrial revolution caused two or three generations of people to be thrown into poverty and lose everything they had because it was all tied into their job, recalls Irwin.

“Everything gets bad when things are uncertain,” says Irwin, “And this is a very uncertain time. We need to have a better idea of what’s coming so we can actually make some change.”

Irwin, who earned his Master’s in Public Health in 2014, wants his work to have a preventative focus, trying to find those things that not enough people are talking about, but have the potential to make a huge impact on public well-being.

“Especially in the United States, where I live, we’re so tied up with our jobs—it seems like it’s over half our identity,” says Irwin, “We live to work in America.”

In a place like the US, where a job is not only a source of income, but also an identity and a health factor, Irwin’s research offers hope that technological disruption can foster opportunity instead of chaos.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, 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).


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.

Do smokers know what they are doing to their life expectancy?

By Valeria Bordone, University of Munich Department of Sociology and IIASA World Population Program

Everyone, consciously or unconsciously, formulates in their own mind a subjective survival probability– i.e., an estimate of how long they are going to live. This will affect decisions in different spheres of later life: retirement, investments, and healthy behaviors. Moreover, previous research has found that subjective survival probability is a good predictor of mortality. In fact, on average, people somehow know better than standard health measures the effect that their characteristics and their behavior have on life expectancy. It is however plausible not only to expect differences within the population in terms of survival, but also in the ability to predict their own survival.

(cc) roujo | Flickr

In a recent publication with Bruno Arpino from the University Pompeu Fabra and Sergei Scherbov from the Wittgenstein Centre (IIASA, VID/ÖAW, WU)., we presented for the first time joint analyses of the effect of smoking behavior and education on subjective survival probabilities and on the ability of survey respondents to predict their real survival, using longitudinal data on people aged 50-89 years old in the USA drawn from the Health and Retirement Study.

We found that, consistent with real mortality, smokers report the lowest subjective survival probabilities. Similarly, less educated people report lower subjective survival probabilities than higher education people. This is in line with the well-known positive correlation between education and life expectancy. However, despite being aware of their lower life expectancy as compared to non-smokers and past smokers, people currently smoking at the time of the survey tended to overestimate their survival probabilities. This holds especially for less educated people.

This graph shows the probability of correctly estimating the own survival probabilities with 95% confidence intervals, by smoking behavior and educational attainment. ©Arpino B, Bordone V, & Scherbov S (2017)

Our study suggests that in fact, education also plays an important role in shaping people’s ability to estimate their own survival probability. Whether or not they smoke, we found that more highly educated people are more likely to correctly predict their survival probabilities.

In view of the high proportion of the American population that consists of current or past smokers, a percentage that reached 77% in some male cohorts, our findings emphasize the need to disseminate more information about risks of smoking, specifically targeting people with less education.

By showing that smoking and education play together in determining how well people can assess the own survival potential, this study extends our understanding of the variability of subjective survival probabilities within a population. The fact that sub-groups within the population differently incorporate the effects of smoking into their assessment of survival probabilities may have important consequences for example on when people exit the labor market or whether they buy a life insurance, as individuals are likely to base their decisions also on their longevity expectations.

Policymakers can therefore draw some relevant conclusions from our study to design policies concerned with health and survivorship in later life. Despite the various anti-smoking campaigns and smoking restrictions, smokers may not be fully aware of the risks of smoking. In particular, educational groups seem to be differently exposed to the information that is disseminated to the public. Our study suggests that there is a need to target such information to less educated people, who are the most likely to underestimate the risks of smoking. Providing information on how survival probabilities vary by smoking behavior may not only reduce smoking but it may also increase individuals’ ability to assess their own survival.

(cc) Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr

Arpino B, Bordone V, & Scherbov S (2017). Smoking, Education and the Ability to Predict Own Survival Probabilities: An Observational Study on US Data. IIASA Working Paper. IIASA, Laxenburg, Austria: WP-17-012 []

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.