The inaugural symposium explored the state of socio-environmental systems research, recent advances in the field, and the unique challenges and opportunities engendered by the questions and approaches of socio-environmental systems research.
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.
Mosquitoes are the insects we love to hate—most species consume blood from living vertebrates, including humans, and in the process may transmit harmful, sometimes fatal diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, and dengue and yellow fever. (Not to mention those itchy red bites that ruin your summer nights.) Surely, someone has argued that the noblest of professions is the scientist who studies the management of mosquito populations.
Which brings us to Dr. Paul Leisnham, Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland. Dr. Leisnham’s research seeks to understand where mosquitoes breed and how they spread diseases—an understanding that wouldn’t be possible, he says, without simultaneously studying the behavior of humans.
The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is a national research center funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland.
Located in Annapolis, MD, SESYNC is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. Socio-environmental synthesis is a research approach that accelerates the production of knowledge about the complex interactions between human and natural systems. It may result in new data products—particularly ones that address questions in new spatial or temporal contexts or scales—but may also involve evaluating textual or oral arguments, interpreting evidence, developing new applications or models, or identifying novel areas of study.
and MARY SHELLEY Assistant Director for Computational Synthesis
Imagine a scientific endeavor that takes place in a laboratory—but not one of those labs with white coats and silent concentration. In our laboratory, we replace white coats with white boards, flip charts, and a box of washable markers large enough to make any kindergartener giddy; replace silent concentration with three days of constant interaction that makes the room sound more like a tuning orchestra than a formulaic meeting.
This scene is not an unusual one at SESYNC, but a recent meeting of the Role of Green Infrastructure Venture brought together an especially diverse set of participants to tackle especially ambitious goals. The project’s overarching purpose is two-fold: to understand what role green infrastructure can play in improving stormwater management and ecosystem service delivery and, simultaneously, to test a process for engaging scientists in sustainable software development as they apply and develop tools to address these issues.
Our first task was to hone in on a shared idea of what is meant by “green infrastructure” and to envision where each of the 25 participants—including hydrologists, ecologists, city managers, governance scholars, software engineers, and nonprofit program directors—fit into the picture. Many of our supported science teams at SESYNC use the process of conceptual diagramming to facilitate the challenging work of integrating the wide range of transdisciplinary perspectives of their participants. It’s important for each participant to externalize (i.e., get on paper) their conception of the systems being discussed so that they can identify and discuss commonalities and differences in the approaches they bring to a problem. To kick off this activity, the principal investigators (PIs) discussed their shared conception, then each participant was asked to place a pre-printed picture of themselves on the diagram to indicate where they saw their research interest or professional role fitting into the diagram the PIs had crafted. Over lunch, participants used giant sticky notes and lots of markers to create their own individual conceptual frameworks of green infrastructure, which were then used in discussions throughout the course of the three-day meeting, and eventually distilled and integrated into a larger framework.
We heard from practitioners and managers from five cities around the country who each told their city’s story of stormwater management and the potential of green infrastructure to deliver that service and more. Although each local context is unique, they all need metrics (ultimately in dollars and cents) to show that green infrastructure works for stormwater management and other critical city services, and that it is thus worth the investment.
Each researcher then gave a short presentation on their current work and how it relates to green infrastructure. It turns out we do many things across the wide sustainability spectrum—from server-style data management to field infrastructure design, biophysical evaluation to institutional arrangements, and issues of equity to general access. It was exciting to watch experts from so many diverse areas come together to frame big issues around green infrastructure and develop a plan to tackle them. No matter how great our disciplinary differences may be, we all contribute to what a real green infrastructure conception is—one that we hope will inform our research questions, generate needed solutions, and push our understanding as scientists.
Through moments of frustration, exhaustion, and more and more questions, what we can say is that everyone is ready to work together on a shared venture towards solution-focused green infrastructure research.
This Venture seeks in part to prototype a process conceived by the PIs as part of an NSF S2I2 conceptualization award for a Water Science Software Institute, which aims to address software development and sustainability needs of the water science community.
Are you a scientist preparing for a conference presentation? Writing a blog post? Giving a media interview? David Dobbs, a science writer and blogger of Neuron Culture, has some advice for you: “Hunt down jargon and kill it.” 
Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.
We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “wicked problems” means.
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Socio-environmental Synthesis? Yeah, We’ve Got an RFP for That
Great ideas need support—SESYNC honors this need by offering a variety of integrated, socio-environmental synthesis programs. The structure of these programs allows us to make advances in areas of national and international priority while still accommodating the need for innovation and knowledge generation around emerging problems or opportunities. Each program also encourages links to policy and actionable outcomes.
So, you want RFPs? We’ve got three:
For scholars interested in critical questions at the interface of biodiversity and ecosystem services, funding is available for up to six collaborative synthesis projects that bring together data, ideas, theories, or models that investigate a pressing environmental issue involving complex human-nature interactions and global change. Proposals are due October 9, 2013.
For graduate students interested in the complex interactions between human and natural systems, we will be hosting a Socio-Environmental Synthesis Research Proposal Writing Workshop that will provide participants with:
introductions to SESYNC, socio-environmental synthesis research, team science, and actionable science;
networking opportunities to build professional relationships with other students, particularly those from different disciplines; and
training sessions on the methods, challenges, and strategies associated with writing successful proposals, especially those related to the type of work SESYNC supports. Applications are due October 11, 2013.
For University of Maryland faculty, funding is available for innovative interdisciplinary workshops that bring together scholars from diverse disciplines to inspire novel research that focuses on topics related to the interdependency between humans and the natural environment. Proposals are due November 1, 2013.
Food for Thought
This fall, we’ve invited leading scholars in the fields of wildlife biology, applied mathematics, social anthropology, and beyond to SESYNC for our brown bag seminar series. Bring a lunch and an open mind and join us at our Annapolis facilities for these unique science conversations.
Click here for a listing of our seminars, which begin at 12:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.
Image: Ana Luisa Ahern, Creative Commons
Is a Fish Saved a Forest Lost?
What are the unintended consequences of closing off large marine areas to fishing? It’s a question leading SESYNC scholars have a lot to say about. We interviewed Drs. Ray Hilborn, Taylor Ricketts, and Brendan Fisher about the global implications of marine protected areas (MPAs)—you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Earlier this year, Alan Alda—an award-winning film and television star, as well as a founder and visiting professor of journalism at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science—told participants at a workshop hosted at Cornell University to ease up on the jargon when communicating science to the public. Scientists sometimes take specialized terminology, core to the research that they do, for granted. While the use of such “trade language” can make communication between issue specialists more efficient, it can make communication with audiences outside of those niches—including scientists in other specializations—less clear and less productive.
We wanted to pull back the veil from some scientific terms that we use at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). So today, we took to the streets to see how many people know what “epistemology” means.
A recent article in Wired magazine about user interface design (“Why a New Golden Age for UI Design is Around the Corner”) captured my attention by describing the proliferation of smart technology and wearable computers, such as Google Glass, as an “ecosystem” of devices. As both an ecologist and a lover of words, I couldn’t help but dissect this metaphor—how could something so artificial be comparable to the natural world?
What makes this metaphor work is that it is about the interactions between each piece of technology—instead of species and energy or nutrients, computers are tracking data and sharing information. Primary producers “create” data by recording GPS signals, your voice or text messages, or information about the external world in your smartphone or other device. That data is recorded in a way that can then be shared with other devices across time and space, to the consumers of that information—your friends, a colleague, or you at some point in the future. The network even evolves over time when a new generation of products is released. Version 2.0 keeps and improves upon the best components of the previous product while adding new features.
I recently spent a week thinking about ecosystems—albeit of a very different nature—at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference. Ecologists devote a lot of time to understanding the complexity and value of ecosystems by studying the way biological communities interact with each other and with their physical surroundings. Many of the motivations and procedures for research, however, are motivated and influenced by society. Therefore, it should be no surprise that one theme that emerged from the meeting was the need to study ecological systems from social perspectives—there was even an entire session devoted to the role of philosophy in ecology. How and why ecologists study natural systems have much to contribute to and gain from other disciplines, especially the social sciences. Ecology, therefore, is one component of an interacting community of disciplines—an academic ecosystem.
Whereas the ecosystem of devices that gather and share information about our lives is built for compatibility and interaction, the network of academic disciplines is rife with jargon, disciplinary silos, and irreconcilable assumptions. These disciplines should be “compatible” with each other so that they can share information and knowledge, and in the process add value to each other. After all, the “primary producer” of data in the technological system adds value when it shares information across platforms. It’s neat for a “smart” refrigerator to be able to count how many eggs you have and display that information on the door—it’s useful for the fridge to give you that information on your smartphone, while you’re at the grocery store.
The communication network between these devices requires them to share information, speak the same language, and perceive the same information from many different perspectives. These are the same challenges of compatibility facing discipline-bound academics. A “smart” academic ecosystem would be where developments, or primary production, in each discipline have the potential to be leveraged by consumers in other disciplines who study the same phenomenon. Each discipline would be like a new device that can communicate the data it senses or records across platforms: in other words, “smart.”
the notions that the implications of any conservation action are global, not just local, and that the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems in relation to food security aren’t often thought of in marine research are right on the ball; but
possible shocks to the world’s fisheries as a result of marine protected area (MPA) governance efforts are not actually as worrying as the opinion piece suggests.
I asked Dr. Hilborn for some closing thoughts on the global implications of MPAs, as well as on my dialogue with Drs. Ricketts and Fisher. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
Melissa: Dr. Hilborn, thanks so much for taking the time to read over and respond to Taylor and Brendan’s feedback. Do you have any general comments?
Dr. Hilborn: Well, we’re in basic agreement that the marine conservation realm needs to widen its scope when assessing MPAs. Historically, studies have evaluated impacts on purely ecological elements such as biodiversity. But the interaction between MPAs and impacts elsewhere is not considered when the benefits of large marine closures are praised. What I’m saying with this paper is that in addition to biodiversity, and protections for marine landscapes, there are other, equally significant issues at stake—among them, food production.
Melissa: Taylor and Brendan raise two major questions in response to your opinion piece: one of them is spillover, or the capability of a community to “make up” for lost fishery yield by harvesting from the boundaries of an MPA. Would you say this is a fair point?
Dr. Hilborn: I’ll agree that the occurrence of MPA spillover does allow for stability in some local seafood production. But I’m talking specifically about large marine closures, and the concept of viable spillover is effectively limited to MPAs that are comparatively small, or to communities located on the perimeter of those regions. What about MPAs that are 2–8 times the size of California? My paper mentions Australia’s no-take area of 3.1 million square kilometers in the Coral Sea—that size is significant. That size does not lend itself to convenient mediation by boundary fishing for all affected communities. That’s the size that is most likely to result in the issues of alternative food production I’m describing.
The other important issue here is that many of these large MPAs are obviously in parts of the world where fisheries are well managed. When we do see a resultant reliance on surrogate sources of fish, those sources will almost always be from parts of the world where fisheries are poorly managed, such as Thailand, China, and Vietnam, and from aquaculture. It’s sort of a contagion effect: efforts to provide ecological protection in one area may actually give rise to intensified ecological degradation elsewhere.
Melissa: The other question Taylor and Brendan raise is related to social cost-benefit: that when we evaluate MPAs, we have to look at the “big picture,” not just one qualifier—in the case of your opinion piece, food production.
Dr. Hilborn: Again, the assertion here is quite reasonable and not dissimilar from what I’m saying in my paper. I’d emphasize that one piece of the puzzle, and a hugely important one, is an assessment of an MPA’s implications for food supplies. As I’ve written, the information on trade and environmental consequences of alternative food production is now available to calculate these trade-offs, but it’s just not currently being done. We can’t argue that comprehensive cost-benefit analyses are being conducted if we’re not taking a close look at the effect closing large portions of the ocean has on actions such as forest clear-cutting, pesticide application, water scarcity as a result of increased irrigation, and other agriculturally-related practices. We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of MPAs on our food production activities.
Melissa: For those interested in this subject, where should they go to learn more?
Dr. Hilborn: The new book The Perfect Protein gets into some of this conversation. They could also look into some of my lectures on YouTube. (Editor's note: One example is embedded below.)
That said, due to a lack of research on the subject, I’d encourage scholars to look at centers like SESYNC and NCEAS for opportunities to pursue this type of transdisciplinary synthesis study on marine conservation and food-based systems. These are questions worth answering.
Dr. Ray Hilborn is a former member of SESYNC’s External Advisory Board and a Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington.