Süddeutsche Zeitung: The meaning of poverty

NOMIS scientist Wolfgang Fengler of the World Data Lab (WDL) is making a case for an absolute reference value when it comes to assessing poverty. In his Süddeutsche Zeitung article, “Was Armut bedeutet” (“The meaning of poverty”), he shows how crucial the distinction between absolute and relative measures of income is when addressing poverty, which is why, on a global level, these different measures are incorporated in different development targets, namely poverty (Entwicklungsziel 1) and inequality (Entwicklungsziel 8). Blending these measures confuses the discussion: For example, in Germany, the at-risk-of-poverty threshold is measured relatively, counting those who have less than 60 percent of the national average income. In 2015, this was 1,033 euros per person per month. But if you take this amount as an absolute measure and compare it to income worldwide, a person with this income would be in the middle class. Which measure one takes in the end depends on one’s understanding of economical processes and on political preferences, but any informed discussion needs to be based on properly understood data.

Fengler is an economist at the World Bank in Vienna and part of the WDL, which, along with its research partners, will deploy new methods in data collection, data curation and dissemination, laying the groundwork to advance social and economic research on poverty in the most underdeveloped regions worldwide. NOMIS is funding their collaborative project, Converting Geospatial Observations into Socioeconomic Data, enabling the development of the first-ever sub-national income model for Kenya, which, when developed, can be subsequently adapted for other countries.

Didier Fassin, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Awardee 2018

Didier Fassin is an anthropologist and sociologist whose work in medical anthropology has illuminated important issues about the AIDS epidemic, social inequalities in health and the changing landscape of global health. Initially trained as a physician, he practiced internal medicine and taught public health before turning to the social sciences. Having completed a Master’s degree at La Sorbonne and a PhD at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, or EHESS), he eventually became professor at the University of Paris North and director of studies at EHESS, a position he still holds. He was the founding director of the Interdisciplinary Research Institute in Social Sciences (IRIS) at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris. In 2009, he was appointed the James D. Wolfensohn Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, United States.

Fassin initially conducted studies in medical anthropology, focusing on issues of power and inequality. His research on the politics and experiences of AIDS in South Africa led him to develop the conceptual framework of the embodiment of history to account for the reproduction of social disparities and the production of heterodox interpretations of the epidemic. He launched a scientific program on global interventionism in various international contexts of conflicts and disasters, analyzing the implications of speaking of injustice as suffering, violence as trauma and resistance as resilience. He also investigated immigration and asylum policies as part of a collective project on borders and boundaries supported by the French National Agency for Research.

His approach to political and moral anthropology was implemented in a 10-year ethnography of the French state, conducting fieldwork on police, justice and prison, and developing the field of critical moral anthropology. His most recent inquiry is a critical engagement with philosophical approaches to punishment and to life. Fassin developed a theoretical reflection on the public presence of the social sciences, which he presented in his recipient lecture for the Gold Medal in anthropology at the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist and Scholar Award is enabling Fassin to implement the project Crisis: A Global Inquiry into the Contemporary Moment. The research will examine the ubiquity, in today’s world, of the notion of crisis, which has been applied to most domains of human life — social, economic, political, moral and cognitive. It will analyze how this pervasive presence of the language of crisis signals something about the present that is both objectively identifiable and subjectively experienced. It will explore, through a multi-sited study conducted on five continents and mobilizing different disciplines, the multiplicity of the forms of, and responses to, crises. This inquiry will thus be used as a way to push further the frontiers of the social sciences, both geographically, through an opening toward a global perspective, and epistemologically, through the encounter with neighboring fields.

For more information about Didier Fassin and his work, please see his faculty profile.

Don W. Cleveland, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist 2018

Don W. Cleveland is a cancer biologist and neurobiologist studying mechanisms and therapies for neurodegenerative diseases at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Cleveland is a pioneer in his field, having made multiple discoveries that have led to a greater understanding of neurodegenerative diseases. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, and in 2018 he was awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Prize, which honors important achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics.

Among Cleveland’s discoveries is the tau protein, which mutates or abnormally accumulates in cells, leading to cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontal temporal dementia and chronic traumatic brain injury. He identified key steps that trigger disease and that accelerate ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) disease progression from a mutation in superoxide dismutase. These findings have changed the direction of stem cell and gene silencing therapies in ALS. Cleveland is also responsible for discoveries on the etiology of Huntington’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder, with implications for a number of other neurodegenerative and neuromuscular diseases.

He has developed promising gene-silencing therapies, also known as designer DNA drugs, which can block the activity of the gene whose mutation causes diseases such as Huntington’s disease. These therapies are in clinical trials for ALS, Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and are being adapted for treating several other diseases, including glioblastoma, chronic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease.

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award is enabling Cleveland and his team to identify a previously unknown mechanism for cell entry in the mammalian nervous system, develop gene editing/gene suppression approaches, and identify the underlying basis for liquid-liquid de-mixing and its contribution to neurodegenerative disease. His NOMIS-supported project is titled, Mechanisms of Gene Silencing and Liquid-Liquid De-mixing in the Nervous System.

Cleveland earned his PhD from Princeton University, NJ, United States, in 1977.  He did postdoctoral work at the University of California at San Francisco before becoming a professor of biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1981, moving to the University of California at San Diego in 1995. He is the department chair of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Neurosciences at UCSD, and head of the Laboratory for Cell Biology at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in San Diego.

For more information about Don W. Cleveland, please see his faculty profile.

Victoria Orphan, NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Awardee 2018

Victoria Orphan is the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, United States. A geobiologist, Orphan is studying the interaction of microorganisms found in deep-sea sediment with the environment, and has shown that some of these microbes work together in symbiosis to regulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by consuming methane as their primary source of carbon. She is a pioneer of techniques that combine molecular biology and mass spectrometry into novel methods that enable the capture and analysis of individual microbial cells in their natural environments. These novel stable isotope applications use secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS and nanoSIMS) for measuring single cell activity and metabolic potential of uncultured microorganisms in environmental samples.

Orphan’s work on microbially mediated anaerobic oxidation of methane in deep-sea sediment has won her the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (known as the “genius grant”). She is also the recipient of the 2010 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator Award, among many others.

The NOMIS Distinguished Scientist Award is supporting Orphan in her efforts to investigate the impact of marine viruses on the transformation of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in ocean surface waters and sediments, with the ultimate goal of incorporating the data from this unique stable isotope approach into trophic models for ocean ecosystems. As part of this effort, Orphan and her team are advancing the viral-nanoSIMS method for multi-isotope and stable isotope labeling and tracking of host-virus dynamics at the nanometer scale. Her NOMIS-supported project is entitled, Understanding Virus-Host Dynamics in Ocean Ecosystems.

Victoria Orphan earned a BA in aquatic biology in 1994 and a PhD in ecology, evolution and marine biology in 2001 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She did her postdoctoral research as National Research Council Associate at the NASA Ames Research Center in California from 2002 to 2004. Orphan joined the faculty in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, United States in 2004 and was appointed the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science and Geobiology in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech in 2016.

For more information about Victoria Orphan and her research, please see her faculty profile.

AEA: “Understanding the economic brain: What can economics and social neuroscience learn from one another?”

The work of NOMIS scientist Carlos Alós-Ferrer has been highlighted in an article by the American Economic Association (AEA). Alós-Ferrer emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary research between economists and social neuroscientists to increase our understanding of human behavior. The article, “Understanding the economic brain: What can economics and social neuroscience learn from one another?” pinpoints the opportunities for collaboration between the two fields.

This collaboration potential was the topic of Alós-Ferrer’s paper in the March issue of the Journal of Economic Literature. Fundamentally connected, these disciplines can be strengthened by sharing tools, methodologies and insights.

“When we study society, whether or not we want to, we are studying the brain,” Alós-Ferrer said in an interview with the AEA.

Alós-Ferrer is the NOMIS Professor for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory at the University of Zurich.

Carlos Alós-Ferrer named NOMIS Professor for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory at the University of Zurich

Carlos Alós-Ferrer has been appointed NOMIS Professor for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory at the University of Zurich (UZH) in Switzerland. He is an economist who, prior to joining UZH, was professor of microeconomics at the University of Cologne, Germany, and the speaker of the interdisciplinary research unit “Psychoeconomics,” funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). He studied mathematics at the University of Valencia, Spain, and received his PhD in Economics at the University of Alicante, Spain, in 1998.

Alós-Ferrer has conducted research on game theory and mathematical economics, and has a strong interest in neuroeconomics (also known as psychoeconomics), the interdisciplinary field that combines psychology, economics and neuroscience to study human decision making.

The goal of neuroeconomics is to provide a foundation for the study of underlying neural processes of decision-making within today’s economic environment. Essential to the further progress of this field is the construction of empirically informed, testable models that connect the level of neural and mental processes underlying decision-making with the descriptive models of choice that characterize modern economics. Through this professorship, Alós-Ferrer will draw on the collaborative, interdisciplinary expertise at UZH to develop viable models with the potential to have a significant impact on the field of neuroeconomics.

The NOMIS Professorship for Decision and Neuroeconomic Theory is a result of a long-term partnership among the Department of Economics at UZH, the Excellence Foundation and the NOMIS Foundation.