SESYNC Hosts International Symposium


ANNAPOLIS—The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Resources for the Future (RFF), and University of Maryland (UMD) is convening an international symposium on June 11 to 13, 2018. Boundary Spanning:  Advances in Socio-Environmental Systems Research will bring together 250 leaders, emerging scholars, and other key individuals interested in innovating research and processes for solving socio-environmental problems. 

The phrase “boundary spanning” means reaching out to build bridges across historic divides. In this context, the symposium connects and integrates diverse disciplines, sectors, knowledge, perspectives and goals – from academic, government, decision-makers, and others – to accelerate actionable solutions to complex problems at the interface of people and the environment. 

Led by Dr. Margaret Palmer, Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, SESYNC opened its doors seven years ago with funding from the NSF. “There have been significant scholarly advances in several arenas but we are also now at a point we can see big hurdles that the research community need to clear,” she said. The conference showcases many of the advances and discuss solutions to the challenges. “Our understanding of the linkages and feedbacks between social and environmental systems has grown immensely. Not only are previously unknown linkages being identified but our ability to quantitatively integrate theories of behavior change and decision making into dynamical models of environmental systems is opening new doors to inform policies,” she said.

Some linkages SESYNC research teams have identified include how upstream watershed conditions can predict children’s health in developing countries. Another SESYNC research pursuit integrated risk perception and subsequent behavioral response with climate change models to suggest that mitigation may benefit from new policies and communication strategies. 

Certain topical or problem areas in socio-environmental research have attracted large and growing numbers of researchers. For example, SESYNC-supported teams have found the link between governance structure and natural resource outcomes; fisheries management and protected areas; and land use change drivers and consequences. Other areas are “research-starved” but exceedingly important, explained Palmer. Examples include all aspects of research linking behavior and behavior change relevant to environmental problems, environmental management beyond land use change, and human health.

“At SESYNC we have seen dramatic growth in the number and depth of interactions among scholars from disciplines who have rarely collaborated,” Palmer said, adding that environmental historians and geoscientists; philosophers, legal scholars, and ecologists; psychologists, medical entomologists, and evolutionary biologists have all taken part in science teams. “Interestingly and perhaps somewhat related, we are witnessing dramatic changes in department affiliations, degree titles, and how researchers characterize themselves …. the boundaries between some disciplines are blurring.”

Part of the motivation for the symposium is to find paths to overcome hurdles in research. “Despite the widely held view we are in the age of data excess, most socio-environmental problems suffer from either lack of data--especially social--or an inability to obtain or easily use existing data,” said Palmer. “Many problems can only be addressed at broad scales because data are collected at the country or, sometimes, somewhat smaller levels but they are only available in aggregated form.  Yet understanding the underlying social and ecological processes and linkages typically requires finer scale resolution.”

The symposium will explore the current state of socio-environmental systems research, recent advances in the field, and the unique challenges and opportunities prompted by the questions and approaches of socio-environmental systems research. In addition, the symposium seeks to catalyze and inspire new collaborative and interdisciplinary communities of research and practice. Through symposium talks, sessions, and discussions organized around three guiding themes--socio-environmental systems under stress, in transition, and by design—participants will leave with a broad understanding of the current state of socio-environmental science and the important role that synthesis can play, Palmer explained.

Keynote speeches by Ray Hilborn, Professor of Aquatic and Fisheries Studies at the University of Washington; Susanne Moser, director and principal researcher of Susanne Moser Research and Consulting; and Michael Watts, Chancellor’s Professor of Geography and Development Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, represent diverse perspectives within socio-environmental systems fields. Keynotes will contribute valuable insights and inspire next steps for research.  

The University of Maryland’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis is a National Science Foundation-supported center that brings together the science of the natural world with the science of human behavior and decision making to find solutions to complex environmental problems. SESYNC is funded through an NSF Award to the University of Maryland.