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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision-making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. We convene science teams to work on broad issues of national and international relevance, such as water resources management, land management, agriculture, species protection, among other areas of study. By supporting interdisciplinary science teams and researchers with diverse skills, data, and perspectives, SESYNC seeks to lead in-depth research and scholarship that will inform decisions and accelerate scientific discovery. SESYNC is funded by an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation. Learn more about SESYNC.

The Writer’s Job is to Make the Reader’s Job Easy

May 27, 2015

Guest Contributor

Dr. Josh Schimel is a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (Oxford University Press, 2011). Recently, Josh led a two-day writing workshop at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) for the center’s postdoctoral fellows. I sat down with Josh after the workshop to discuss what scientists, particularly those who work in interdisciplinary fields, need to know about writing well.

Paul Lagasse: At the beginning of your book, you have a quote: “As a scientist, you are a professional writer.” You then go on to say that being a professional writer is not enough; you also need to write something that’s “sticky,” that grabs people. Can you say more about what you mean by that?

Josh Schimel: Part of being a professional writer is thinking about your writing as more than just filling in the boxes of an IMRAD structure. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader’s job easy. You need to think about the reader and how they’re going to respond to your work. Scientists are not trying to be literary when we write for our peers, but I argue that we should be using literary tools to do a better job of writing science.

PL: Do scientists who conduct interdisciplinary research face unique challenges in terms of their writing compared with those who write for someone in a single discipline?

JS: In science, we often borrow words from other fields and assign different meanings to them. Take the term “resilience,” for example. To an engineer, it means the ability to return to a stable state following a single perturbation, whereas ecologists use it to mean the ability to absorb constant disturbances without changing fundamental processes.

But nature doesn’t do disciplines; humans create them to simplify how we think about and address questions and problems. We need to recognize that scientists in different disciplines may both be working on the same issue, although they may have defined it differently. The writer’s role is to craft language so that whoever’s reading it can see that and recognize both sides.

PL: Do you see self-publishing as the future of science scholarship, and if so, what would that mean for peer review? When you’re dealing with an interdisciplinary topic, I imagine that finding a suitable journal might be more of a challenge.

JS: Some people in the sciences have been arguing about why we even need journals anymore. But I think that writers need someone to help with editing and quality control, and to put an imprimatur on what’s worth paying attention to. Many people tend to think that the purpose of peer review is just to filter out the garbage, but it also polishes the not-garbage. It provides critical outside input that really helps make the science better.

PL: The role of peer review, in that sense, becomes analogous to the role of the editor in fiction. But a lot of fiction authors have a reluctant relationship with their editors; is it the same in the sciences?

JS: Absolutely! It’s a love–hate relationship, and a negotiation.

PL: In your book, you mention the distinction between rules and principles. Can you tell me about how you perceive the difference?

JS: I argue that principles are fundamental concepts that, if you violate them, your writing will suffer. The most important principle is to write with clarity and energy. Now, there are many rules of grammar that can be applied to modulate clarity and energy, some of which are useful and some of which are kind of marginal—such as never starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “however.”

That said, no rule in the English language was created just to be evil. They all have their uses, and sometimes, breaking those rules have their uses, too. If you break a rule well, people won’t notice that you did the very thing that they said not to. Writing well is its own kind of science, because it takes practice and effort. It’s also its own kind of art, because your reader should never be aware of the effort behind it—only the message that it carries.

Note: parts of this interview have been edited for readability and clarity.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Top image courtesy Eric Heupel via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Trade-Dependent Countries at Risk?

May 14, 2015


Above figure: Map displaying the geographic distribution of countries belonging to the four groups described by Suweis et al. in PNAS.

Communications Coordinator

Twenty four percent of all food produced in the world is traded across international boundaries. Increasingly interconnected food networks shuffle soybeans from Brazil to China; fish from China to the United States; and corn from the U.S. to Japan.

As countries become increasingly dependent on an increasingly globalized food trade, local pressures can give way to socio-economic and socio-environmental impacts felt around the globe. Changes in policy or extreme environmental conditions in one country can affect the food security of another thousands of miles away.

But just how vulnerable are we?

New research published this week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates how the relationship between global population and food supply is becoming more and more sensitive to demographic and environmental fluctuations. At particular risk are nations where land and water resources are scarce and, as a result, food security—typically defined as sufficient access to safe and nutritious food that meets the dietary needs of a population—is reliant on imports. Such interdependence could lead to instabilities with possible catastrophic consequences: escalated food prices, increased poverty and hunger, social unrest.

“We’re in a new era in that global trade gives us access to food produced halfway around the world, which we can import to help cope with shocks to local agricultural systems. But at the same time, international trade networks expose us to the local shocks of other regions that can propagate into global crises,” said Paolo D’Odorico, sabbatical fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and one of the study’s authors.

The study—co-authored by members of a SESYNC synthesis group—evaluates the food security of more than 140 nations with populations greater than one million. The researchers say their findings indicate how, through international trade and fluctuations in supply-and-demand, the global food system is losing resilience and becoming increasingly susceptible to crises. Using global population, food production, and trade data in conjunction with complex network analysis, they mapped hotspots of food insecurity.

“This is the first time someone has attempted to mathematically quantify the level of resilience of the global food system—specifically, how likely a country’s food supply is to absorb or recover from shocks,” said Samir Suweis, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Padova and lead author of the study.

The authors categorized each country into one of four groups:

[A] Exporting countries in which population growth is driven by domestic resources—including the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Argentina.

[B] Trade-dependent countries that cannot sustain their population without importing food—including Japan, Jordan, Egypt, and Algeria.

[C] Countries in which trade does not substantially alter food availability or population growth (or vice versa)—including China, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and Germany.

[D] Countries that are in a state of chronic food stress because their populations have grown above levels that could be sustained from both domestic production and trade—including Somalia, Angola, Ethiopia, and Senegal.

The results show that countries in groups B and C are most sensitive to perturbations throughout the food trade network and, therefore, are at the greatest risk of food insecurity. It’s a finding the researchers found surprising: countries in group C, which do trade but are not dependent on imports, are highly vulnerable because of the interconnectedness of the trade system.

D’Odorico and Suweis say that more research is needed to understand these results.

“A possible explanation might be that these countries are presently self-sufficient—but just barely so. They may not have access to sufficient reserve resources to cope with demographic shocks, exposing them to greater potential risk," D’Odorico said.

The study can be accessed online at: http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/short/1507366112

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

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Restoring Degraded Coasts with Living Shorelines

April 21, 2015

Communications Assistant

Imagine you’re visiting your grandparents’ oceanfront home for the first time since you were young. You take a careful seat on the water’s edge, your nostalgia interrupted by the sharp, unfamiliar rocks lining the shore. You’ve changed since your last visit—and so, it seems, has the landscape.

Many coastal regions have experienced similar transitions as a result of growing populations and accompanying economic development. Biscayne Bay, Florida is one such region. The area’s natural beauty has attracted more and more residents and visitors, which spurred the rapid urbanization of Miami and the surrounding area in the 20th century. The flood of people ushered in a slew of environmental impacts such as pollution, loss of habitat, and shoreline erosion over time. Although these impacts aren’t unique to this area, the threat they pose to the region’s natural resources are cause for concern.

Mangrove forests, known for their dense tangle of prop roots, are native to Biscayne Bay. The root systems trap and filter out sediment, making mangroves important for both coastline protection and providing habitat to a wide variety of aquatic life and shoreline birds. These unique habitats have in many places been degraded or destroyed by urban development. Restoration efforts have included living shoreline techniques (i.e., supplementing hard structures such as sea walls and retaining walls with mangrove trees) to stabilize the shoreline and to provide an environment for wildlife to utilize.

A study recently published in the peer-reviewed Bulletin of Marine Science by Joseph Peters of Portland State University, Lauren Yeager of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), and Craig Layman of North Carolina State University analyzed the ecological impacts of riprap installation (i.e., rock or other material used to armor shorelines against erosion) combined with mangrove plantings. They were specifically interested in the differences of fish assemblages between artificial riprap mangroves and natural mangroves in northern Biscayne Bay. The researchers found that overall, restored shorelines had the most species-rich fish communities, therefore demonstrating the potential to improve degraded shorelines and successfully support aquatic life.

They did, however, find a caveat. Riprap is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

“There are benefits to planting artificial mangroves—but the mangrove root structure is somewhat changed by the rocky riprap, and as a result the roots cannot perform many of their natural functions,” Peters explained. “We anticipated that there might be a difference in the fishes that utilize the riprap versus natural mangroves. But among certain fish species, it appears that riprap mangrove habitats don’t add any value. We think it’s because the artificial rock–root structure doesn’t provide equal protection for certain fishes against predators as compared to natural mangroves.”

Coastal communities are working to find ways to cope with shoreline degradation, prevent further damage from erosion, and design restoration projects in a sustainable way. Living shorelines are emerging as a preferred restoration method—their environmental benefits are plenty, and they’re often more adaptable to potential impacts associated with climate change. Since 1987, more than $11 million has been spent on coastal habitat restoration and exotic plant removal in Biscayne Bay alone.

Restoration can be expensive. But the economic costs may be a fair trade to prevent the total destruction of coastal shorelines, leaving generations to come without the important ecosystem services they provide. We’re at risk of losing more than our nostalgia—if we don’t look closer into restoration solutions, we’ll have bigger fish to fry.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter at @SESYNC.

Top image: Riprap mangrove restoration, courtesy Joseph Peters.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Simulating Sprawl: What Economists Can Learn from ABMs

April 2, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Mainstream economics has yet to embrace the potential of agent-based modeling to accelerate our understanding of how humans impact systems. But evidence that this tool is useful for exploring environmental-economic problems is easy to find.

Nicholas Magliocca, a computational research fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), uses agent-based models (ABMs) to investigate the dynamics of human–environment interactions and their consequences for environmental and economic sustainability. In a nutshell, that means he uses computers to simulate how individuals behave, and how the interactions of their behaviors lead to large-scale outcomes.

ABMs are critical tools, Dr. Magliocca explains, for researching questions that might be otherwise unethical or impossible to explore. He points to his recent research on how urban development patterns are influenced by economic variables—for example, a home buyer’s income (unethical to manipulate in the real world) and/or preference for lot size (difficult, if not impossible, to manipulate in the real world).

In a paper recently published on the research, Magliocca and his co-authors—Virginia McConnell and Margaret Walls of Resources for the Future—explain that communities across the United States have invested in a variety of programs and policies to combat urban sprawl, which is associated with consequences such as increased air pollution, reduced access to natural areas, and loss of local farmland. But how do communities determine which of these investments are effective? It’s complicated, because the urban development process itself is so complex. Hailing a single policy as a key solution seems inconceivable: there are endless arrays of physical landscapes, consumer preferences, and market fluctuations to consider, after all.

While it may be human impulse to reduce complexity, ABMs embrace it. Magliocca and his colleagues’ model incorporates three types of agents (consumers who purchase houses of various types, a developer, and farmer/landowners who choose between farming and selling their land) and simulates a series of market events (buying land, building houses, setting asking prices). The agents’ decisions are governed by a set of mathematical algorithms—learning rules based on cognitive models so consumers, developers, and landowners can adapt over time, as they would in the real world.

The ability to manipulate the otherwise unethical or impossible reveals why ABMs are so useful. Tweaking the agricultural productivity of a farmer’s land here, or a consumer’s preference for travel/commute time there, results in an entirely different model scenario with entirely different outcomes. The researchers ran the model 150 times in all, with each small change unleashing a slew of varying feedbacks between agents and markets.

The most surprising result? Early development patterns are dictated by agricultural land value—but eventually become dominated by farmers’ land price expectations.

“In a very rural area, the value of land is tied pretty tightly to its agriculture productivity,” Magliocca explained. “All a developer needs to do to buy is determine that value threshold and make a slightly higher offer. But at some point, when and where land is developed is more about farmer’s reactions to changing prices and development patterns rather than some set economic standard.”

“Our model points to the importance of people’s expectations and behaviors,” he added. “It highlights the need to take more than just economic fundamentals into account when designing development policy.”

Although agent-based modeling has been deemed an “uninteresting” or “fringe” approach by many mainstream economists, many others tout it as a tool worth developing. It turns out there are some questions that agent-based modeling can answer that mainstream economics simply cannot on its own.

The research paper, “Exploring sprawl: Results from an economic agent-based model of land and housing markets,” was published online March 25 in the peer-reviewed journal Ecological Economics. It can be accessed for free until May 14, 2015, by clicking here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Top image courtesy La-Citta-Vita via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Replumbing Cities from Gray to Green

March 25, 2015

Guest Contributor

As we go about our day, most of us never stop to think about the steady flows of fresh and waste waters that happen every moment just a few feet beneath the sidewalks and streets. Kristina Hopkins, postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), wishes that more people would do so—because in many cities, the systems that handle those flows are beginning to fail.

Increasingly, failing infrastructure, flash flooding, and poor water quality—problems likely exacerbated by climate change—affect the health of rivers and streams flowing through our cities. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems a D grade. It’s estimated that an investment of nearly $300 billion will be required to restore our wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, while drinking water supply systems will require a $1 trillion investment over the next 20 years.

At SESYNC, Dr. Hopkins is studying how cities are addressing these problems by investing in “gray” infrastructure, which includes the installation of pipes and large storage tunnels and the upgrading of sewage treatment plants, and “green ” infrastructure, which uses soils and vegetation to slow down and filter stormwater at the source using features such as rain gardens. Working with Abby York and Nancy Grimm of Arizona State University, Hopkins is using data and reports from local agencies to determine how and why four cities—Phoenix, AZ; Philadelphia, PA; Pittsburgh, PA; and Portland, OR—are investing in green infrastructure. Hopkins seeks to answer two overarching questions:

  1. How have stormwater infrastructure systems changed over the last 20 years?
  2. What socio-political factors trigger transitions in management strategies?

At a recent seminar presented at SESYNC, Hopkins explained her hypothesis: that the ability of cities to change their management strategies to incorporate green treatment solutions depends on the amount of coordination between various civic entities and the degree to which administrative power is distributed. Cities in which a single authority oversees all elements of the water cycle and in which the planning process flows from the bottom up, Hopkins argues, are the most likely to successfully transition to new management approaches.

To better understand these dynamic relationships, Hopkins is creating a database that captures the characteristics of each city’s water service area (size, climate, infrastructure types), governance characteristics (infrastructure ownership, policy instruments, incentive programs, administrative arrangements), and performance metrics (environmental conditions, access to green infrastructure, community engagement). To test her hypothesis, Hopkins hopes to perform qualitative and quantitative analyses to identify the links between different types of governance structures and the outcomes of efforts to adapt water management approaches.

Hopkins says her work at SESYNC will advance the field of socio-environmental synthesis by identifying policies and financial investments that catalyze transitions towards resilient, stormwater management systems.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Agricultural Terracing: Steps to Conservation

March 11, 2015

Guest Contributor

For the last several thousand years, humans have used agricultural terracing—the leveling of sloped land into “steps” that serve as planting beds—as a means to grow food where flat land is hard to find. Today, scientists believe that those same techniques can be adapted to help agricultural communities to conserve water and reduce soil erosion. Matthew LaFevor, postdoctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), wants to find the best ways to do that.

Dr. LaFevor’s research focuses on the use of semi-terracing, also called ditch-and-border terracing or zanja y bordo, as a means of water and soil conservation and to restore degraded landscapes and restore biodiversity in Latin America. Zanja y bordo, explains LaFevor, “has become an all-purpose strategy to repair degraded hill slopes, whether for producing agricultural goods or producing environmental services.”

LaFevor explains that his research seeks to answer four questions:

  1. Is zanja y bordo terracing an effective, sustainable means of soil and water conservation?
  2. What are the potential socio-environmental impacts of government terracing programs in Latin America?
  3. What can a global synthesis of data on terracing tell us about how forms function in different environments?
  4. How can synthesis research on terracing be used to improve environmental management?

At a recent seminar presented at SESYNC, LaFevor described two of the projects he’s working on: a global synthesis of data on hill-slope terracing—the first comprehensive analysis of its kind ever conducted—with Alexandra Ponette-González of the University of North Texas, and a study of the role of conservation terracing in the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) with Nick Magliocca of SESYNC. The results of these studies, LaFevor believes, will help government planners to improve their country’s environmental management techniques.

Terracing is an effective means of soil and water conservation, says LaFevor, but its effectiveness depends on both the design of the terracing and the environment in which it is used. The government of Mexico, for example, is using zanja y bordo terracing to restore degraded hard-pan surfaces throughout the country to preserve soils, but in some cases the use of this technique is actually exacerbating the problem. Without periodic maintenance, terraces can fail and cause landscape-level degradation.

To better understand the dynamics of terracing programs in Mexico, LaFevor is using data collected by that country’s largest land-development program to date, the Program for Sustainable Agriculture and Restoration of Degraded Lands (PIASRE), which ran from 2001 to 2007. He is analyzing the project’s database to identify the various terracing projects by state and establish their characteristics. Overall, LaFevor says, the data suggest that very little consideration was given to the type or location of terraces, which will likely lead to problems in the future.

LaFevor’s global synthesis of hill-slope terracing involved the creation of a database of over 800 scientific studies culled from scientific journals as well as studies published by NGOs and government agencies—and even historical maps that show agricultural features. LaFevor then uses a technique called thematic coding to highlight key information to make it easier to identify significant patterns and trends, and to present them in charts and tables that are easy to understand.

LaFevor’s research raises several important social and environmental questions. Different cultures use different terracing techniques; will these characteristics be visible in maps of terrace intensity? Do sociocultural differences in terrace design, such as spacing, have implications for water runoff and soil erosion? How do maps of terracing intensity in Mexico overlap with maps of conservation hazards and erosion? These are questions that LaFevor hopes to be able to answer as he continues his research at SESYNC.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 


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