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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.

SESYNC, USDA Partner to Catalyze Data-Driven Research on Food Systems Resilience to Climate Change

Annapolis, Md — In partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) announces the “Data to Motivate Synthesis” Program for early career scientists and researchers at the agriculture, environment, and social nexus to identify and understand the factors that influence food systems resilience to climate change.

Now You See It

June 24, 2014

Many researchers in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) are harnessing the power of “big data”—a popular term used to describe the massive amount of information that is acquired, stored, searched, shared, analyzed and visualized—in the quest for answers to some of the world’s most complex problems. Using the latest computational tools to extract the most important pieces of information from these huge data sets and applying sophisticated analytic techniques, researchers are discovering patterns and making unexpected connections in virtually every scientific discipline.

Director of Cyberinfrastructure Joseph JaJa, Postdoctoral Fellow Mary Collins, and SESYNC Scientific Programmer Ian Muñoz are featured in the June 2014 issue of Odyssey Magazine, published by CMNS at the University of Maryland.

Click here to read the story.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Innovative Technology for Global Food Waste Solutions

June 19, 2014

From simple sun drying systems for produce to home appliances networked with food distributors, food scientist John Floros sees a major role for technology in reducing worldwide food waste.

Science Communication Fellow

As much as one-third to one-half of the world’s food harvest is lost from field to plate every year, experts estimate. Food scientist John Floros wants to change those numbers—and he’s betting on a new food science and innovation center to help turn things around.

How ingenuity will feed the world.The new lab’s work will be critical to food security by preserving more and better quality food for the world’s growing population, says Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University and director of K-State Research and Extension. The new food center, called the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, is housed at Kansas State University and coordinates with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Initially the new lab will focus on helping the countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala reduce their post-harvest losses and food waste for grain and oil seed crops, tuberous root crops, and peanut and legume crops. Researchers will investigate how to prevent insect pests and fungus when crops are stored as well as improved techniques for measurement, drying and storage.

Continue reading at FutureFood 2050.

Mapping the Landscape of Land Change Synthesis

June 12, 2014

Communications Coordinator

Much of what we know about how humans use land, and how those practices change over time, is informed by local case studies. But determining whether individual case studies are merely anecdotal—or if they can be scaled up to help explain regional or even global land use patterns—can be a challenge.

To reconcile local information with regional–global knowledge, researchers who study land change must also reconcile the diversity of disciplines involved in land change science. From urban economics to geophysics and ecology to geography, each brings with it disparate data types and research questions.

The research approach of synthesis—which “draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods in order to accelerate knowledge production beyond that of less integrative approaches”—is especially useful in this context.

“People who study land use change are often dealing with both quantitative and qualitative data, due to the human component of the field,” said Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). “If you’re trying to integrate, for example, satellite remote sensing imagery with farmer surveys, your synthesis techniques will necessarily vary from those used for highly-controlled and standardized field experiments.”

In a new study published in Regional Environmental Change, lead author Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science, and identify specific techniques born of the land change community that are specifically designed to integrate these types of diverse data sets. The study tasks itself with helping researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what type of data they have—and, importantly, with identifying ways to improve upon these methods.

“Synthesis, and meta-studies in particular, are becoming a very popular approach within the land change community,” said Magliocca. “This paper highlights some of the more innovative approaches that enable us to link local observations with regional and global patterns. Considering both at the same time is pretty unique, and pretty powerful.”

Access the article online at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Top photo: Charles Tilford, Flickr/Creative Commons

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World

June 5, 2014

Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.

Science Communication Fellow

Weeds that resemble knee-high grass grow in planter pots in a small room at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab just outside Washington, D.C. Light, heat, and carbon dioxide reach the plants at steady levels. For more than a month, the weeds have sustained the same conditions expected to be earth’s norm 35 years from now — carbon dioxide levels equivalent to an urban traffic jam, and temperatures tipping into the dangerous zone for the planet’s health.

But rather than choking from such treatment, the weeds — a wild plant called red rice — are thriving. The test lab mimics conditions expected around the world by 2050, when an additional 2.6 billion people will be wondering what’s for dinner.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, studies, among other things, weeds in food production and human health. Weeds beguile Ziska. Weeds may be the largest single limitation to global crop yield. But they also have traits that are useful to plant growth. Red rice, for instance, can adapt to more carbon dioxide and heat by producing more stems and grain — red rice has 80 to 90 percent more seed than cultivated rice.

Continue reading at Yale Environment 360.

Blue Angels Return to Annapolis

May 22, 2014

SESYNC is located in Annapolis, Maryland, a city recognized for its historic character, dedication to the arts, maritime connections, and support of the Chesapeake Bay. Both the city dock and U.S. Naval Academy are a mere mile from SESYNC’s offices—and this week, we took advantage of that proximity by taking in the Blue Angels flight rehearsal and demonstration.

The Blue Angels are the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. For the first time since 2011, they flew over Annapolis on May 20 and 21 for the Naval Academy’s commissioning week. Check out some of the photos communications coordinator Melissa Andreychek took from the Naval yard and SESYNC rooftop below!


Just What the [Marine Scientists] Ordered

May 21, 2014

Above photo: Fishing boats in Palawan Province, Philippines. Photo by Mary Aileen M. delas Alas via WorldFish, Flickr/Creative Commons.

SESYNC–Luc Hoffmann Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

Take two aspirin with water.

Supported by numerous, rigorous medical studies, this tried-and-true medical advice applies to a host of afflictions—and is accompanied by a wide range of side effects. But it’s a clear treatment plan that people know and understand.

The world’s oceans cover most of our planet: they are home to nearly 50% of the world’s species, and more than 2.6 billion people rely on seafood for some part of their nutrition. However, the health of our oceans is currently threatened by climate change, pollution, habitat decline, and overfishing. It is clear that we need solutions to restore the abundant biodiversity in the world’s seas and to sustain it for future generations … but what would these solutions look like? What would an aspirin for the oceans be?

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are increasingly common tools used to conserve threatened or important species and their habitats, increase the abundance of commercially important species for fisheries and recreation, as well as to reduce conflicts amongst marine users. Many countries have established MPAs as a “treatment” to protect their natural marine resources. Despite their general effectiveness, however, some MPAs have seen mixed results—past research has documented the “side effects” of MPAs, both positive and negative—as many social, political, and ecological factors appear to complicate the processes that would otherwise allow MPAs to be successful.

Using data collected from MPAs around the world, our Pursuit at SESYNC seeks to identify the governance and contextual factors that contribute to MPA success in order to guide future conversation. It is expected that our results will not provide a “one size fits all” explanation for MPA success, which presents a challenge when aiming to give recommendations for action. As a response to this issue, one team member drew an analogy during our recent Pursuit meeting from the medical field: after numerous, rigorous studies, medical researchers can prescribe patients to "take two aspirin,” even though results vary from individual to individual. Even though we may show that MPA performance may vary between cases (as with medicine and the human body), there is still a need to communicate clear and concise messages that we can stand behind scientifically, despite the many nuances and caveats that may exist. It’s a communications challenge our Pursuit group is working to address. Almost all the MPAs in the world will be implemented within the next 10 years, and we must address the need to ensure research translates to action.

The discussion also brought to light a “second story” that can be conveyed beyond the results of our analytical models. This came in response to a key question about our research: Do the tools and approaches we have in hand allow us to rigorously assess MPA success? Based on our limited success after months of data scoping and collation, involving local and regional agencies from around the world, it is evident that significant gaps exist in the available data on the impacts of MPAs, particularly in social science. Given these deficiencies, the group discussed how we could respond to key challenges:

  • If we have the ability to influence decisions differently, where funds are being allocated, and how research is done in the future, how could we encourage the decision makers, funders, and marine scientists to improve the consistency and collection of ecological and social data in order for us to effectively measure the social and ecological impacts of MPAs?
  • While still maximizing the (relatively limited) use of the data that is currently being collected, can we provide recommendations for key social, governance and ecological indicators that permit robust analysis of outcomes?

By the end of the meeting, the group identified some of the main audiences for the research, including MPA managers, other scientists, NGOs, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), private foundations, representatives of the CDB member states, and the general public. The forums to reach these groups were also identified, and included face-to-face meetings, web outputs, presentations and sessions at major conferences, published manuscripts, and high-level summary reports. It is hoped that the short-term outputs of this Pursuit result in long-term change in marine conservation activities and policy making.

Further Reading:

Expanding Marine Protected Area networks (WWF)

Dr. David Gill is funded through a collaborative partnership with the Luc Hoffmann Institute in support of the SESYNC Pursuit “Solving the Mystery of Marine Protected (MPA) Performance.” He is based at SESYNC’s Annapolis, Maryland center.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland and located in Annapolis, Maryland, United States, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and natural systems. Visit www.sesync.org for more information.

The Luc Hoffmann Institute, located in Gland, Switzerland, was created by WWF to respond to the most important questions facing conservation and sustainable development. Visit www.luchoffmanninstitute.org for more information.


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