TRaCKing Research in Action

December 4, 2012

Actionable science is a key component of SESYNC’s mission, as our Center supports scholarship that has the potential to inform environmental decisions at a government, business, nonprofit, and individual level. We are always interested in learning more about other groups that practice this type of scholarship, and last week we welcomed another proponent of actionable science, Dr. Michael Douglas of Charles Darwin University, as our seminar speaker.

Dr. Douglas leads an interdisciplinary team at the TRaCK (Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge) research consortium in the tropical north of Australia. Over 80 scientists from social, cultural, environmental, and economic fields work together to provide the scholarship that governments, communities, and industries  can use to evaluate the sustainable use of northern Australia’s tropical rivers and estuaries. TRaCK’s research spans 27 projects that examine the biophysical and cultural values of tropical rivers and inform debates about trade-offs among them. These efforts provide information important for government agencies focused on water planning. The applications of this research are also relevant to other environmental issues such as irrigated agriculture, mining, coastal development, and sea-level rise. In his talk, Dr. Douglas emphasized the importance of transdisciplinary collaboration that involves resource managers in the process of identifying research questions related to environmental problems.

To learn more about TRaCK, visit:

To learn more our upcoming seminars, visit:

Technical Stats

November 12, 2012

What does it take to power SESYNC?

During the build out of our facilities, SESYNC and UMIACS (University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies) staff pulled over 30,000 feet (5.5 miles!) of Category 6 Ethernet cable through the Center (which moves data at up to10 gigs/sec).

Hard at work: SESYNC staff pulling cables in Fall 2011

SESYNC and UMIACS staff also terminated over 240 Ethernet ports, and installed two equipment racks, 4 UPS back-up batteries and a dozen wireless access points throughout the Center. Our outbound connectivity is a 500 megabit metro-ethernet circuit connecting our offices to the University of Maryland in College Park. We are in the process of acquiring a 10 gigabit connection which will allow access to resources at College Park as if they were on our local network.

Now that we’ve been officially open for 10 months, here are a few statistics on what we’ve deployed over the past year:

Total video conferencing participant hours: 815

Available research storage: 35 terabytes

Active network connections: 80

FUN FACT: Our available research storage is the equivalent to the storage space of over 7,000 DVD movies!

Storms and Synthesis

November 5, 2012

Postdoctoral Fellow

As I write this from the SESYNC offices, in Annapolis, MD, the Eastern seaboard is recovering from a chimeric “Frankenstorm,” caused when two storm fronts converged in the mid Atlantic. The energy they held as they clashed could surely power coastal cities for weeks. Instead, it did the opposite, brutally fraying the order—the carefully insulated buildings, the subways and rail networks, the power grids—we work so hard to build, maintain, and replicate. The weather services predicted it could be a once in a century storm.

The consideration of these separate forces is a good metaphor for the historic consideration of society and environment, and the titanic clash highlights the scale of today’s environmental problems. The storm began out at sea—out of sight, out of mind, just meteorological.  Socio-environmental problems in a globalized world, a perfect storm, constitute both an obvious problem and a genuine opportunity to enhance understanding and take enlightened action. The promise of SESYNC is in embracing that challenge.

A recent SESYNC workshop on Linking Socio-Environmental Science to Socio-Environmental Change, hosted at partner organization Resources for the Future (RFF), explored the sticky problem of coherently moving scientific knowledge through the often disconnected networks of people and organizations managing human-environmental systems. Presentations and discussions illuminated how the actors involved, from businesses to agencies, often form insulated clusters, and that decisions are often made by a single powerful actor, such as a planning board, without input from other clusters and with strikingly little direct experience with the environments being affected. During breakout sessions, attendees discussed the difficulties of productively crossing the boundaries between experts “holding” knowledge and decision-makers acting on it and the importance of “reflexiveness,” of remembering that working models about translating knowledge into action can affect resulting decisions as much as the science itself. Participants from resource-management agencies, universities, and nonprofits advocated using a range of social-change theories to guide this translation. Such pluralism is a necessary part of the evolution of science, during which ideas and approaches compete and cooperate, cross-fertilize and coalesce.

Yet if “the whole of science is …,” as Einstein suggested, “a refinement of everyday thinking,” then we must both offer and assess ideas about the structure, functioning, and sustainability of socio-environmental systems, winnowing options to those that work best. Comparing systems and outcomes will be important. Distilling the findings into a core body of understanding will be crucial. Socio-environmental science, sustainability science, coupled human and natural system science—different names for synonymous studies—have amassed a great deal of data and knowledge, sometimes siloed in individual disciplines or theories but often interdisciplinary, and usually case-specific but sometimes comparative. Nevertheless, our understanding of socio-environmental systems, particularly the hyperpowered ones of today and tomorrow, is still nascent. We may know the principles from physics, chemistry, and geology behind weather and the principles from biology, sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology behind human behavior, but only synthesizing this knowledge and searching for deep patterns will provide wisdom about the broader storm system and the most intelligent actions we can take to change the things we can change and to accept and adapt to those we cannot

Welcome to SESYNC’s Blog: Our First Year in Review

October 23, 2012

Hello and welcome to the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center’s (SESYNC) Blog! This blog will serve as a source of SESYNC news and events from the perspectives of SESYNC staff, fellows, postdocs, and participants.

SESYNC was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in September 2011 and opened its doors in January 2012. Since that time, we have hosted nearly 500 participants in a diverse range  of events including Workshops, Ventures, Pursuit and Theme Identification meetings, and Seminars. SESYNC events have covered a variety of topics that address the synthesis of social and environmental issues, such as the human impacts of ocean acidification, STEM education, visualization technologies for human-environment interactions, and environmental governance. We are also pleased that 4 Postdoctoral Fellows and 10 Undergraduate Summer Interns joined us during our first year

Since our grand opening in January 2012, SESYNC has funded:

  • 5 Pursuits under Theme 1
  • 1 Pursuit under Theme 2
  • 5 Pursuits under Theme 3
  • 7 Workshops
  • 5 Ventures
  • 3 Foundation Series
  • 6 Seminar Series

We look forward to continuing this momentum into Year 2! Stay tuned for more information, reflections, and updates from members of our community.



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