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 www.nanditasaikia.com.

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.

Beyond averages and aggregates

By Shonali Pachauri, Senior Researcher in the IIASA Energy Program

Shonali Pachauri explains why data, indicators, and monitoring at finer scales are important to ensure that everyone benefits from policies and efforts aimed at achieving national and global development goals.

A world where no one is left behind by 2030, is the promise nations have made by adopting the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development. But how does one ensure that no one is left behind? It requires designing inclusive policies and programs that target the most vulnerable and marginalized regions and populations. Sound data and indicators underpin our current understanding of the status of development and are an important part of periodic reviews to determine the direction and pace of progress towards achieving agreed goals. These form the basis of informed decisions and evidence-based policymaking. While an exhaustive list of indicators has been prescribed to monitor progress towards the globally agreed goals, these have been largely defined at a national scale. These goals rely overwhelmingly on simple averages and aggregates that mask underlying variations and distributions.

Indian woman walking home with fire wood © Devy | Dreamstime.com

Recent work I’ve been involved in makes the pitfalls of working with averages and aggregates alone abundantly clear. They can obscure uneven patterns of changes and impacts across regions and groups within the same nation. The overall conclusion of this work is that, even if the globally agreed goals are met by 2030, this is no guarantee that everyone will benefit from their achievement.

A recent Nature Energy – News & Views piece I was invited to write reports on a study that assessed the impacts of China’s recent coal to electricity program across villages in the Beijing municipal region. The program subsidizes electricity and electric heat pumps and has been rolling out a ban on coal use for household heating. The study found that the benefits of the program to home comfort, air quality, and wellbeing varied significantly across rich and poor districts. In poor districts, the study found that the ban was not effective as poor households were still unable to afford the more expensive electric heating and were continuing to rely on coal. Studies such as this one that help us understand how and why benefits of a program may vary across regions or population groups can aid policy- and decision makers in formulating more fair and inclusive policies.

In other recent research carried out with colleagues in the IIASA Energy Program, the Future Energy Program at the Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei (FEEM) in Italy, and the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems at the University of Victoria, Canada, we developed a detailed satellite nightlights derived dataset to track progress with providing electricity access at a sub-national level in Africa. We found that while progress with electrification between 2014 and 2018 varied across nations, at a sub-national provincial level, disparities were even more pronounced. Even more surprising, while electricity access is generally higher and easier to extend in urban areas, we found urban pockets where access has stagnated or even worsened. This correlated with areas where in-migration of populations had been high. These areas likely include urban slums or peri-urban regions where expanding electricity access continues to be challenging. Furthermore, our analysis shows that even where access has been extended, there are regions where electricity use remains extremely low, which means that people are not really benefitting from the services electricity can provide.

In a final example, of research carried out with collaborators from the University of British Columbia and the Stockholm Environment Institute, we evaluated a large nationwide program to promote cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Indian households to induce a shift away from the use of polluting solid fuels. While this program specifically targets poor and deprived, largely rural households, our assessment found that although there has been an unprecedented increase in enrollments of new LPG customers under the program, this has not been matched by an equal increase in LPG sales. In fact, we found consumption of LPG by program beneficiaries was about half that of the average rural consumer. Moreover, when we examined how purchases were distributed across all new consumers, we found that about 35% of program beneficiaries purchased no refills during the first year and only 7% bought enough to substitute half or more of their total cooking energy needs with LPG. Clearly, the health and welfare benefits of a transition to cleaner cooking are still to be realized for most people covered by this program.

Analyses, such as the examples I’ve discussed here, clearly highlight that we need data, indicators, and monitoring at much finer scales to really assess if all regions and populations are benefitting from policies and efforts to achieve national and globally agreed development goals. Relying on aggregates and averages alone may paint a picture that hides more than it reveals. Thus, without such finer-scale analysis and an understanding of the distributional impacts of policies and programs, we may end up worsening inequalities and leaving many behind.

 References:

[1] Pachauri S (2019). Varying impacts of China’s coal ban. Nature Energy 4: 356-357. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15905]

[2] Falchetta G, Pachauri S, Parkinson S, & Byers E (2019). A high-resolution gridded dataset to assess electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientific Data 6 (1): art. 110. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15982]

[3] Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15994]

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 Earth is our spaceship: Perspectives from space

Rachel Potter, IIASA communications officer, interviews retired NASA Astronaut and Principal of AstroPlanetview LLC, Sandra H Magnus on insights about our world she has gained from her time living on the International Space Station.

©NASA Photo / Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your specific areas of research as a scientist? 

A: My PhD was on a new material system being investigated for thermionic cathodes, which are used as electron sources for satellite communication systems. My research was an effort to look at the system methodically and from a science viewpoint to understand physically what was going on in order to inform the design of more robust devices. If you can operate the cathode at a lower temperature, that means a longer life for it, which is a good thing for satellites! Post-PhD I was however admitted to the Astronaut Office and that, quite frankly, pretty much put an end to my career as a researcher, or at least as a principal investigator (PI). The work I did on the International Space Station was at the direction of other PIs who had proposed, and been granted, experiments in space.

Q: Your career has spanned a wide range of settings from the NASA Astronaut Corps to your current role as Principal of AstroPlanetview LLC – what is the common thread or focus that has run through your work? 

A: Following my curiosity and looking for challenges. I always want to be challenged and feel that I am learning new things. If I feel that I have become stagnant, I start looking for how to change that situation.

Q: What have been the personal highlights of your career? 

A: Clearly flying in space! I feel very fortunate, however, to have been in the Astronaut Office during the era of the space station. I enjoyed very much working in a collaborative, multicultural, international environment where we had a big team of people from around the world working on something that benefits the planet.

Q: What are the greatest lessons you have learned from seeing the Earth from space?

A: I was so excited to FINALLY be going into space after hoping to do just that for over 20 years. The Earth is our spaceship – a closed system in which everything on the planet affects, and is connected to everything else on the planet. An action somewhere means a reaction somewhere else, even if it is not always first order (and usually it is not). Also, the planet looks incredibly beautiful and very fragile – we have to take care of it!

© NASA STS-126 Shuttle Mission full crew photo (5 March 2008), Sandra H Magnus far left.

Q: What do you see as key to solving the complex problems the Earth faces in terms of sustainability? 

A: Having the will to do it as a community. If you have the will, commitment and a clear, agreed-to, articulation of the common goal, we can pretty much accomplish anything we want to.

Q: How do you see IIASA being able to build bridges between countries across political divides? 

A: Well, when we want to solve problems, it really is all about relationships at the end of the day. It is easy to demonize or keep your distance from abstract ideas or the ubiquitous “They” but when you meet people, understand them as individuals and the context of their backgrounds that lead them to have different views and approaches to life and solving problems, it is much easier to visualize how you can work together to tackle issues. The relationships are the bridges.

Q: What advice would you give to young women researchers wanting to make it into Aeronautics? 

A: To young women (and young men, too, really) I would say, “If you have a dream to go do something, then you owe it to yourself to go for it and try it!” Never let anyone else define who you are or tell you what you can or cannot do – believe in yourself and give it a try. Maybe you will make it, maybe you will not, but it will be on your own terms, with you pushing yourself and regardless of the outcome you will have a deeper understanding of yourself, and that is always a good thing.

Sandra H Magnus visited IIASA on 21 June 2019 in cooperation with the US  Embassy Vienna, to give a lecture entitled “Perspectives from Space”  to IIASA staff and this year’s participants of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program. IIASA has a worldwide network of collaborators who contribute to research by collecting, processing, and evaluating local and regional data that are integrated into IIASA models. The institute has 819 research partner institutions in member countries and works with research funders, academic institutions, policymakers, and individual researchers in national member organizations.

Notes:
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.

5 years of Vietnam membership at IIASA

Tran Thi Vo-Quyen, IIASA guest research scholar from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), talks to Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam, about achievements and challenges that Vietnam has faced in the last 5 years, and how IIASA research will help Vietnam and VAST in the future.

Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam

What have been the highlights of Vietnam-IIASA membership until now?

In 2017, IIASA and VAST researchers started working on a joint project to support air pollution management in the Hanoi region which ultimately led to the successful development of the IIASA Greenhouse Gas – Air  Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model for the Hanoi region. The success of the project will contribute to a system for forecasting the changing trend of air pollution and will help local policy makers develop cost effective policy and management plans for improving air quality, in particular, in Hanoi and more widely in Vietnam.

IIASA capacity building programs have also been successful for Vietnam, with a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) becoming a key coordinator of the GAINS project. VAST has also benefited from two members of its International Cooperation Department visiting the IIASA External Relations Department for a period of 3 months in 2018 and 2019, to learn about how IIASA deals with its National Member Organizations (NMOs) and to assist IIASA in developing its activities with Vietnam.

What do you think will be the key scientific challenges to face Vietnam in the next few years? And how do you envision IIASA helping Vietnam to tackle these? 

In the global context Vietnam is facing many challenges relating to climate change, energy issues and environmental pollution, which will continue in the coming years. IIASA can help key members of Vietnam’s scientific community to build specific scenarios, access in-depth knowledge and obtain global data that will help them advise Vietnamese government officials on how best they can overcome the negative impact of these issues.

As Director General of the International Cooperation Department, can you explain your role in VAST and as representative to IIASA in a little more detail?

In leading the International Cooperation Department at VAST, I coordinate all collaborative science and technology activities between VAST and more than 50 international partner institutions that collaborate with VAST.

As the IIASA council representative for Vietnam, I participate in the biannual meeting for the IIASA council, I was also a member of the recent task force developed to implement the recommendations of a recent independent review of the institute. I was involved in consulting on the future strategies, organizational structure, NMO value proposition and need to improve the management system of IIASA.

In Vietnam, I advised on the establishment of a Vietnam network for joining IIASA and I implement IIASA-Vietnam activities, coordinating with other IIASA NMOs to ensure Vietnam is well represented in their countries.

You mentioned the development of the Vietnam-IIASA GAINS Model. Can you explain why this was so important to Vietnam and how it is helping to improve air quality and shape Vietnamese policy around air pollution? 

Air pollution levels in Vietnam in the last years has had an adverse effect on public health and has caused significant environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, undermining the potential for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country and impacting the poor. It was important for Vietnam to use IIASA researchers’ expertise and models to help them improve the current situation, and to help Vietnam in developing the scientific infrastructure for a long-lasting science-policy interface for air quality management.

The project is helping Vietnamese researchers in a number of ways, including helping us to develop a multi-disciplinary research community in Vietnam on integrated air quality management, and in providing local decision makers with the capacity to develop cost-effective management plans for the Hanoi metropolitan area and surrounding regions and, in the longer-term, the whole of Vietnam.

About VAST and Ninh Khac Ban

VAST was established in 1975 by the Vietnamese government to carry out basic research in natural sciences and to provide objective grounds for science and technology management, for shaping policies, strategies and plans for socio-economic development in Vietnam. Ninh Khac Ban obtained his PhD in Biology from VAST’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in 2001. He has managed several large research projects as a principal advisor, including several multinational joint research projects. His successful academic career has led to the publication of more than 34 international articles with a high ranking, and more than 60 national articles, and 2 registered patents. He has supervised 5 master’s and 9 PhD level students successfully to graduation and has contributed to pedagogical texts for postgraduate training in his field of expertise. 

Notes:
More information on IIASA and Vietnam collaborations. 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.

Facilitating sustainable energy transitions at the top of the world

By Pallav Purohit, researcher with the IIASA Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program

More than 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity. Pallav Purohit writes about recent research that looked into how the issue of energy poverty in the region can be addressed.

The Hindu Kush Himalayas is one of the largest mountain systems in the world, covering 4.2 million km2 across eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. The region is home to the world’s highest peaks, unique cultures, diverse flora and fauna, and a vast reserve of natural resources.

Ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all – the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – has however been especially elusive in this region, where energy poverty is shockingly high. About 80% of the population don’t have access to clean energy and depend on biomass – mostly fuelwood – for both cooking and heating. In fact, over 300 million people in Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries still lack basic access to electricity, while vast hydropower potentials remain largely untapped. Although a large percentage of these energy deprived populations live in rural mountain areas that fall far behind the national access rates, mountain-specific energy access data that reflects the realities of mountain energy poverty barely exists.

Source: Wester et al. (2019)

The big challenge in this regard is to simultaneously address the issues of energy poverty, energy security, and climate change while attaining multiple SDGs. The growing sectoral interdependencies in energy, climate, water, and food make it crucial for policymakers to understand cross-sectoral policy linkages and their effects at multiple scales. In our research, we critically examined the diverse aspects of the energy outlook of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, including demand-and-supply patterns; national policies, programmes, and institutions; emerging challenges and opportunities; and possible transformational pathways for sustainable energy.

Our recently published results show that the region can attain energy security by tapping into the full potential of hydropower and other renewables. Success, however, will critically depend on removing policy-, institutional-, financial-, and capacity barriers that now perpetuate energy poverty and vulnerability in mountain communities. Measures to enhance energy supply have had less than satisfactory results because of low prioritization and a failure to address the challenges of remoteness and fragility, while inadequate data and analyses are a major barrier to designing context specific interventions.

In the majority of Hindu Kush Himalaya-countries, existing national policy frameworks currently primarily focus on electrification for household lighting, with limited attention paid to energy for clean cooking and heating. A coherent mountain-specific policy framework therefore needs to be well integrated in national development strategies and translated into action. Quantitative targets and quality specifications of alternative energy options based on an explicit recognition of the full costs and benefits of each option, should be the basis for designing policies and prioritizing actions and investments. In this regard, a high-level, empowered, regional mechanism should be established to strengthen regional energy trade and cooperation, with a focus on prioritizing the use of locally available energy resources.

© Kriangkraiwut Boonlom | Dreamstime.com

Some countries in the region have scaled up off-grid initiatives that are globally recognized as successful. We however found that the special challenges faced by mountain communities – especially in terms of economies of scale, inaccessibility, fragility, marginality, access to infrastructure and resources, poverty levels, and capability gaps – thwart the large-scale replication of several best practice innovative business models and off-grid renewable energy solutions that are making inroads into some Hindu Kush Himalayan countries.

This further highlights an urgent need to establish supportive policy, legal, and institutional frameworks as well as innovations in mountain-specific technology and financing. In addition, enhanced multi-stakeholder capacity building at all levels will be needed for the upscaling of successful energy programs in off-grid mountain areas.

Finally, it is important to note that sustainable energy transition is a shared responsibility. To accelerate progress and make it meaningful, all key stakeholders must work together towards a sustainable energy transition. The world needs to engage with the Hindu Kush Himalayas to define an ambitious new energy vision: one that involves building an inclusive green society and economy, with mountain communities enjoying modern, affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy to improve their lives and the environment.

References:

[1] Dhakal S, Srivastava L, Sharma B, Palit D, Mainali B, Nepal R, Purohit P, Goswami A, et al. (2019). Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. pp. 167-207 Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4 [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15666]

[2] Wester P, Mishra A, Mukherji A, Shrestha AB (2019). The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-4.

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.