Research Themes & Areas

Wittgenstein Centre Research Themes

Overall Research Focus

The scientific goal of Wittgenstein Centre’s research is to significantly advance the global frontier in modelling and understanding the drivers and consequences of changing population structures around the world – past, present and likely future. We explicitly address multiple dimensions of population structures that go beyond the conventional analysis by age and sex. Substantively, we focus particularly on the roles of human capital formation and global population ageing and on the interactions of these trends with the social, economic and natural environment. We use the rich methodological toolbox of demography and in particular the methods of multi-dimensional population dynamics for quantitatively addressing the “quality dimension” of changing human populations.

The above described research focus on incorporating the “quality” dimension into the study of population trends including their drivers and consequences around the world can be structured into four broad research themes and ten research areas as shown in the chart.

The Four Themes

(a) Processes of human capital formation: All human capital starts with individual births. Therefore the study of human capital must start with the comprehensive analysis of fertility and the family settings into which babies are born. The Wittgenstein Centre studies global fertility trends and family change, with a particular focus on lower-fertility countries in general and a comparative European perspective in particular. We emphasize the institutional (e.g. family and labour market policies), socio-economic and cultural (e.g. gender role attitudes) determinants of family plans and their realisation. Furthermore, we look at educational differentials in fertility rates across countries and over time as well as in child health and well-being of parents and children. These topics are also considered within a broader context of intergenerational relations. The second major component of this research theme focuses on the process of learning and formal education. The challenges lie in developing more precise indicators and models of school enrolment and progression to higher grades that correspond to best practice demographic standards, in empirically assessing their trends in different parts of the world, in analysing their drivers, and in developing quantitative models of their likely future trends. Increasingly this team will also address the quality of education and the assessment of adult skills. Finally, migration is a relevant contributor to human capital stocks.

(b) Processes of human capital depletion: The death of an individual is the ultimate depletion of his/her human capital. Therefore the research area Mortality plays a central role as the forces driving international trends in mortality are comprehensively studied, with a special emphasis on differentials by gender and level of education. Other sources of human capital depletion are declining health status and cognitive abilities at higher ages. The latter is the explicit focus of the research area Morbidity and Disability including cognitive ageing which systematically studies the internationally available empirical evidence on this issue. The modelling of trends in the proportions of elderly people (as measured through conventional and new indicators of ageing) and in education and other differentials in physical disabilities at higher ages is done in close collaboration with the staff who works on Multi-dimensional Population Dynamics and Measuring and Modelling Population Ageing. The final source of human capital depletion which will be studied in this project is out-migration by level of education which is contributed by the research area Migration.

(c) Modelling and forecasting human capital: Here are brought together many of the more specific lines of Wittgenstein Centre’s research. The methods of multi-dimensional mathematical demography are applied for quantitatively capturing, reconstructing and forecasting the changing composition of populations by age, sex, level of educational attainment and place of residence, as well as possibly health status and labour force participation. The modelling is done primarily by the staff working on Multi-dimensional Population Dynamics but with direct input from the various other research areas that deal with the forces of human capital formation and depletion. Staff forming the Demographic and Human Capital Data Lab is here closely interwoven, not only in providing the necessary base-line populations by all the required characteristics for all countries but also in collecting and estimating the broadest possible historical data base with comparably harmonised data by level of education. These two research areas also served the SSP (Shared Socioeconomic Pathways) modelling community in the context of climate change assessment through updating and downscaling of the five general SSP scenarios developed by the Wittgenstein Centre.

(d) Interactions between human populations and their socioeconomic and natural environments: This fourth research theme embeds the above described demographic and human capital trends in the broader analysis of global change. Because these trends do not happen in isolation, it is important to understand how they influence and are in turn influenced by their socioeconomic and natural environments. Staff working on Population and Environment applies the understanding of human capital dynamics gained from the other projects to address one of the greatest open issues with respect to the question of how dangerous climate change is likely to be for future human well-being, namely that of the drivers and priorities of future adaptive capacity. Researchers working on Population Economics comprehensively address the returns to investments in education and health, take an economic approach to the interactions between ageing, productivity and retirement, and a systems analytical approach when it comes to studying the interactions between population, development and environment.

The Wittgenstein Centre aspires to be a world leader in the advancement of demographic methods and their application to the analysis of human capital and population dynamics. It is a collaboration among the World Population Program of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (VID/ÖAW) and the Demography Group and the Research Institute on Human Capital and Development of the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU).

Wittgenstein Centre Partner: WU Wittgenstein Centre Partner: OEAW Wittgenstein Centre Partner: IIASA