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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.

What is the recipe for a sustainability research center?

March 4, 2013

Faculty Research Assistant

Solving complex environmental problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines and perspectives. Yet experts working in diverse fields on the same topic use different language, methods, and tools and ask fundamentally disparate questions—which in turn produces a complicated, uncertain, and sometimes even contradictory body of results that is difficult for non-experts to make sense of. Understandably, households, companies, and governments trying to make informed decisions can be confused about how to use this multitude of results.

Similarly, researchers studying complex environmental problems can find it frustrating when their results are not put into practice. Research has shown that social and political dynamics have a remarkable influence on the ways in which scientific research informs, or fails to inform, the decisions made by policy-makers, business leaders, and individuals. Therefore, the solutions to many environmental problems are transdisciplinary—they require collaboration amongst experts in different fields. But how and where do those collaborations happen?

SESYNC at the University of Maryland, University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability are some of the places working to produce research that can be effectively used by decision-makers. The deans and directors of these institutions came together in a session at the February meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, MA, to discuss how the organizational structures of their institutions actually facilitate interdisciplinary research. While a traditional university model fosters the creation of academic specialists, sustainability research centers are designed to facilitate research by groups of specialists that have vastly differing backgrounds, approaches, and perspectives on environmental problems.

Scientific enterprise in universities is traditionally structured around disciplinary boundaries where faculty members are incentivized to advance fundamental knowledge in their field. The organizational (e.g., tenure and promotion process, staffing models, administration) and even physical structure of a typical university campus reflects this academic “silo” mentality, and perpetuates the effective collaboration of faculty and students within well-defined areas of research. In the past, collaborating with non-academics, or even researchers from a different part of campus, was a risky endeavor for faculty members working within traditional academic settings.

SESYNC and other sustainability-focused research centers are experimenting with institutional models that facilitate research that is more likely to make an impact beyond the academic community. These places prioritize actionable research portfolios and communication networks between scientists and non-academics, and have flexible organizational models to accommodate the dynamic nature of research topics being addressed. Creating a rigorous academic culture centered on actionable science requires leaders of these institutions to develop new metrics to evaluate the success of their more ambitious but novel goals. How will they measure the success of a new communication network? How will non-traditional research outputs be considered in promotion processes? What institutional support is necessary for successful interdisciplinary collaborations?

Highly-motivated and collaborative faculty members that were frustrated by not seeing their research used to solve problems are now finding homes in institutions like SESYNC, where research with actionable results that cross social, economic, political, and natural science disciplines is prioritized. These institutions are thoughtfully considering how to make the best use of their faculty’s diverse talents and harness that expertise towards meaningful outcomes.


“The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

February 11, 2013

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach

The world is more wicked than our disciplines.”

– Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment, Boston Architectural College

In Florida, a state task force has recommended that universities change the way they assign tuition rates, based upon the major a student chooses. The recommendation and the resulting furor and controversy reflect a fundamental debate facing higher education today: What is the value of higher education? According to the task force, the value is all economic. Florida’s universities should charge different tuition rates based upon the needs of the Florida job market. Under this proposal, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) majors would be charged lower tuitions, while social science and humanities majors would end up paying more.

Not everyone agrees with the Florida task force. Dr. Herb Childress, Dean of Research and Assessment at Boston Architectural College, reminded the audience in his opening plenary at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) conference, that one purpose of higher education is to prepare students for the future. We need to be mindful, he said, that the future is full of Wicked Problems—urgent problems that are ill-defined, dynamic, complex, public, and often intractable. Examples of Wicked Problems include global climate change, water resource management, biodiversity, and sustainable development. How do we prepare our students to deal with these problems that will have profound impacts on their lives? To begin, we need to define the value of higher education, and liberal arts in particular, as more than disciplinary content knowledge. As Dr. Childress emphasized, higher education should reflect the interdisciplinary nature of our Wicked Problems, and educators should strive to develop the interdisciplinary, collaborative, civic, and leadership skills that our students will need to manage these problems.

So what needs to be done to move towards this goal? I gathered several insights at some of the AAC&U conference sessions and talks, but I found two particularly relevant to SESYNC. First, in a discussion on the “intersection between innovation and ethics,” Dr. Deborah Johnson, Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Virginia, pointed out that the greatest barrier to interdisciplinary work across the STEM disciplines and social sciences/humanities is the attitude that “STEM seeks truth and is impartial. [In reality], science and technology shapes and is shaped by society.” Thus, changing this attitude is critical in enabling the interdisciplinary work between the natural and social sciences that the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) facilitates. These kind of cultural changes take time, but as more voices—including those from the SESYNC community—insist on the importance of studying science in the context of society, progress is being made.

The second insight came from a session on “creating institutional change for next generation STEM learning.” Dr. Judith Ramaley, Distinguished Professor of Public Service at Portland State University and President Emerita of Winona State University, described her vision for higher education and STEM education, which might be summarized with her point that “we [higher education] need to develop transdisciplinary approaches to the study of STEM, guided by a problem-based curriculum.” Dr. Ramaley emphasized the importance of applying STEM knowledge in an interdisciplinary way to make progress on local and global challenges, and provided several examples from Winona State for how she created an institutional culture to support this critical goal. These included the implementation of annual campus-wide “signature themes” focused on critical challenges such as water.

As higher education institutions shift towards this vision of higher education shared by Ramaley and others, the SESYNC community has an important opportunity. By demonstrating how synthesis research across natural and social sciences can provide useful, “actionable” knowledge for decision-makers, and by advancing the teaching of socio-environmental synthesis to train future researchers and to increase science and environmental literacy, SESYNC can add a strong voice in answering the question: What is the value of higher education? The value is in the future and in the way we prepare our students for the challenges that lie ahead.

Website 2.0

February 4, 2013

Welcome to version 2.0 of our website.  Our first website was designed in two weeks ... this one has taken a little longer. However, we think our new one brings a tremendous improvement in functionality and design. Like a synthesis project, our team sought out ideas from a diverse set of users: researchers, students, policy makers, and staff, to name a few. We received proposals from many different design teams and selected LMD Agency to be our partner. We required a compressed schedule, and they delivered a creative website that met our parameters. We thank them for their professional efforts.

On our side, it was truly a team effort. Everyone within SESYNC participated in some fashion - from writing text, providing data, or reviewing design options. Our core team consisted of Mike Smorul, Travis Burrell, Mary Shelley, and Amanda Grimes; we now have a healthy appreciation of what it takes to design a responsive website.

Our new site has been designed to showcase new opportunities, funded projects, and results for our community. As you tour it, please drop us a line to let us know your thoughts and recommendations for future enhancements.



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