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Complexity researcher Stefan Thurner awarded “Scientist of the Year”

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(Vienna, 8th January 2018) The complexity researcher Stefan Thruner (48) has been chosen by the Club of Education and Science Journalists as “Scientist of the Year”. The award honours the mediation work by Austria’s first professor in the field of the science of complex systems at the Medical University Vienna. The award was given to Thurner in Vienna today, Monday 8th January.

With the award, given every year since 1994, the education and science journalists explain the endeavours of researchers, their work and their field to the wider public, thereby enhancing the prestige of Austrian research. “It is important to explain what we do to those who pay for our research. It is definitely not low-cost. Over the intervening years, 3 per cent of Austria’s economic output has gone towards science and research,” Thurner justifies his engagement in science mediation to the APA.

Throughout his work at the Institute of the Science of Complex Systems at MedUni Vienna, as well as at the “Complexity Science Hub Vienna”, founded and lead by himself, it has also been important to him to convey “that we are doing something clever with the opportunities available.” To be more specific, he mentions the work done on large issues such as climate change, migration, inequality, systemic risks, inefficiency, fairness in democratic systems, etc. “We want to improve something here”, says Thurner.

The common factor among all these large problems is that they involve so-called complex systems that we don’t really understand yet. The exciting thing about complexity research is “that we have the opportunity, for the first time, to understand these systems in such a way that we can make predications about them, and if we can do that, then we can perhaps manage these issues even earlier or later.”

Each complex system has networks within it “and understanding these networks is essential to understanding complex systems, how these behave dynamically, how they react to stress, how they demonstrate robustness or collaborate”. Only when we know how the elements relate to one another can we understand a system, Thurner said. He demonstrated such a network with the nodes and links between them using a children’s climbing frame in Vienna’s Schönbornpark during an APA interview.

Until now, in the classical sciences, we have only been able to deal with a small number of elements, because we had neither the computer efficiency nor the data behind it. Since then, both things have materialised and “a lot of datasets can represent the networks. As soon as they are in this form, we can deal with them scientifically, we can apply maths to describe these systems and make progress.”

Even if the large volumes of data (”Big Data”) rank among the bases of complexity research, “we don’t want to use these to monitor people or dismantle their private lives”. Rather, the data should be used “to be able to solve problems that we have created in the 21st century in a constructive and scientific manner - so that we do not just rely on gut feeling if we can manage complex systems”, Thurner said.

The “Scientist of the Year” is annually invited to visit the Austrian embassy in Washington by the Office of Science and Technology (OST) to make a speech in the USA. This year, for the first time, a snow globe from the original snow globe manufactory in Vienna with the Club logo, an owl, produced by Ludwig Boltzmann Society through 3D printing processes, was given as a trophy. The former winners of the award includes the gender medicine expert Alexandra Kautzky-Willer (2016), the archaeologist Wolfgang Neubauer (2015), space travel pioneer Wolfgang Baumjohann (2014) and the environmental historian Verena Winiwarter (2013), amongst others.