RFP: Socio-Environmental Synthesis Research for Graduate Students

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Oct 19, 2015

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) located in Annapolis, Maryland, seeks proposals for independent, collaborative team-based synthesis research by graduate student teams under the following thematic areas:

The goal of this program is to engage graduate students in team-based socio-environmental synthesis research and transdisciplinary collaboration. Teams will conduct an independent synthesis research project (“Pursuit”), which involves a series of face-to-face meetings at our Center in Annapolis, Maryland. Ideally, each project should bring together social and environmental data in novel ways to address critical socio-environmental research questions.

National Science Foundation synthesis centers are not designed to fund the collection of original (raw) field data. Instead, they support the collation of information/data that already exists, as well as the integration and analysis of different types of information/data, synthetically derived data products, model building, and other creative processes. SESYNC’s focus is on the integration of social and natural sciences. Applications that primarily focus on impacts on human physical or mental health will not be considered.

The synthesis science produced through Pursuits should be use-inspired and ideally yield actionable outcomes. Use-inspired science is science that is salient and credible based on scientific rigor and is legitimate to decision makers. Pursuit components fostering actionability may include team engagement with decision makers and, where appropriate, the co-development of research questions and approaches with stakeholders. Actionability might also be achieved through the creation of products useful and relevant to policy, scientific, and/or end user communities, such as peer-reviewed publications, policy recommendations, end user tools, and public outreach efforts.

Team Composition

Although the composition and number of participants in each Pursuit will depend upon the skills, expertise, backgrounds, and time necessary to complete the proposed activities, core teams should be composed of 5–7 PhD students. All student participants must have completed at least one but no more than three full years of their PhD program by January 2016. In all cases, students must plan to remain in their PhD programs until August 2017. Two members of the team should be designated as team leaders and will have additional responsibilities to facilitate team interactions, act as the team’s main point of contact with SESYNC staff, and attend a Graduate Pursuit team leaders meeting in April 2016 and spring 2017 at SESYNC.

In addition to the PhD students, Pursuit teams may opt to recruit two "external experts" whose targeted experience can provide supplemental input on how synthesis products may yield actionable outcomes. If recruited, external experts will supplement the activities of the core team as needed and may include, for example, policy professionals, decision makers, government analysts, academic faculty, postdocs, NGO workers, and members from end user communities. These individuals will not be considered members of the core team and will not attend all group meetings at SESYNC.

Team Formation

SESYNC created a Facebook group to foster collaboration amongst potential SESYNC Graduate Student Pursuit applicants and to assist in the formation of teams. While applicants may use this Facebook group as a way to help form Pursuit teams, it is by no means required nor will it be used in the evaluation process. Potential applicants can share their own academic background, skills, and Pursuit ideas and learn about those of others. This Facebook community is "closed," which means although anyone can see the group and who's in it, only members see posts. If you have trouble requesting to join the group on Facebook, please email SESYNC's Graduate Research Assistant Jo Johnson at kjjohnson@sesync.org to request an invitation.

Proposal Development

Teams interested in applying for a Pursuit should examine SESYNC’s research Themes and select one of the six available listed for this RFP to apply for. Each Theme outlines a general research topic identified by SESYNC through a community-driven process.

We encourage those interested in these opportunities to discuss their ideas with SESYNC prior to developing their proposal. Discussions with team leaders can often help determine if an idea is appropriate for SESYNC, as well as how syntheses might be structured to achieve strong interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary outcomes. Please contact research@sesync.org to schedule a conversation. To be effective, this should occur no later than December 8, 2015 (four weeks prior to the proposal deadline of January 5, 2016). Please note that SESYNC offices will be closed December 25, 2015–January 3, 2016.

Products & Requirements

  • Data sharing and use agreement: Upon completion of the first meeting at SESYNC, Pursuit teams are required to produce a signed agreement concerning team access to their own and/or others’ data. Preliminary consideration of attribution and authorship should also be demonstrated.
  • Project report: Pursuit teams are expected to provide SESYNC with a short reflection report upon project completion. Award stipends will be dependent upon this report submission.

Support Details

Support for Pursuits includes travel, lodging, and meals for participants in accordance with our Travel Policies. All Pursuit meetings are held at our facilities in Annapolis, Maryland. Graduate student Pursuits will last 12–18 months and involve up to three meetings of approximately three days each at our Center. In addition to meetings of the team, up to two Pursuit team leads are required to participate in two additional meetings at SESYNC (one prior to the start of the Pursuit in April 2016, and one final meeting at its completion in spring 2017).

Additional resources and expertise—particularly in areas of data aggregation, computational science, and informatics—are available through SESYNC. These needs should be identified in the project proposal. SESYNC has significant modeling, data analysis, and database management expertise to guide and support teams that need assistance with the technical aspects of data mining, processing, integration, analysis, visualization, and/or modeling. Opportunities for training in computational tools and approaches will be available over the course of projects. Support is also offered for aspects of interdisciplinary team science including meeting design and facilitation of specific sessions and/or meetings as needed.

  • Stipends: Upon Pursuit completion, each core team member will receive a $2,000.00 stipend.
  • Fellowships: Upon Pursuit completion, each core team member will receive the title of SESYNC Graduate Student Fellow.

Proposal Criteria

Pursuit applications will be ranked with regard to:

  • Suitability to the described Theme.
  • Focus on fundamental research questions.
  • Conceptual framework of how you think about the problem.
  • Novelty, creativity, and/or urgency of the proposed activities.
  • Potential to show independent scholarship that integrates contributions of all core team members.
  • Feasibility to produce meaningful synthetic research.
  • Identification and demonstration of access to appropriate data.
  • Potential to translate findings into actionable solutions.
  • Qualifications, appropriate diversity of scientific backgrounds (disciplinary, methodologically), and experience of the proposed participants.
  • Pursuit team leads should demonstrate academic proficiency and establishment within their graduate program. This may include having passed qualifying exams and/or dissertation proposal defenses, as well as receiving strong support for the SESYNC program from faculty advisors.
  • Inclusion of diversity to broaden the participation of underrepresented groups with respect to gender, ethnicity, disability, and geographic location.
  • Explanation of why SESYNC is the most appropriate way to support the activity.

Funding decisions will be based on external peer review by an international panel.

Submission Instructions

All proposals must be submitted via SESYNC’s online submission system. Please read below for further application guidelines and requirements. Completed applications are due no later than January 5, 2016, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).

What to Include

SESYNC applications are composed of three parts to be submitted via SESYNC's online submission system:

  1. An online webform,
  2. A proposal in a single PDF, which should be uploaded to the online webform, and
  3. A downloadable Excel spreadsheet of potential participants, which should be completed and then uploaded to the online webform.

Proposal Requirements

Include the following in your uploaded PDF using single spacing, 12-pt type fonts, and 1-inch margins.

Cover sheet (1 page)

  • Theme to which your Pursuit is responding
  • Descriptive title of Pursuit
  • Short title of Pursuit (25 characters max)
  • Project summary (250 words) – appropriate for the public; to be posted on SESYNC’s website if you are awarded a Pursuit
  • Keywords (up to five keywords different from those used in the title)
  • Proposed project start and end dates
  • Potential conflicts of interest with members of the SESYNC External Advisory BoardLeadership Team, Researchers, or Fellows

Main body (5 pages max, including references)

  • Problem statement: Clear and concise statement of the synthesis project to be undertaken and how it relates to the Theme, including its direct or indirect contributions to actionable socio-environmental science. As appropriate, specify the novelty and creativity of the proposal.
  • Conceptual framework: Graphical and/or textual formats may be used to show how the synthesis approach and various components of the work are linked together to address the problem of interest.
  • Proposed activities: Brief description of the proposed synthesis activities and why they are appropriate for funding by SESYNC as opposed to another funding program, such as NSF's core programs.
  • Data: Description of intended data and any permissions needed for their use. If possible, please list the actual datasets that will be used to initiate the synthesis effort. Data access extends beyond identification of data sources to include a description of data accessibility, permissions, structure, format, and storage requirements. Proposals that do not provide detailed information on the data will not be reviewed. SESYNC supports socio-environmental synthesis research projects that aggregate and integrate, but do not collect, primary and secondary data.
    • Please note: SESYNC discourages applications requesting funding for literature reviews. That said, we will consider meta-analysis synthesis of concepts, theories, and knowledge within the literature if particularly novel or timely.
  • Metrics of success: Description of which metrics are the most appropriate for evaluating the success of the proposed project, including an explanation of products and how products will help each audience (e.g., papers, policy-directed efforts, databases, models, development of new resources, etc.). If successful, who are the non-peer audiences that would most likely use the knowledge or tools developed?

Diversity & external expert statements (1 page)

Include a paragraph describing the aspects of diversity in your participant list. Diversity is considered in all aspects: social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, disability status, career stage, geographic location, and type of home institution. Teams must demonstrate diversity with respect to institutions and disciplines. Teams that include a preponderance of members from a single department or lab group are the least desirable.

If external experts are included in your participant list, please also include a statement for each explaining his/her unique contribution to the team. External experts are optional, but if selected, teams can have up to two individuals such as policy professionals, academic faculty, postdocs, and members of end user communities.

Other information (1 page)

  • If applicable, briefly describe any anticipated needs for cyberinfrastructure support, including descriptions of data sets to be used during the project, new data sets or software/databases, high-performance computing, data aggregation or fusion, and/or types of visualization.
  • Work plan, including:
    • The number of trips per year to SESYNC broken down by number of U.S., domestic, and international participants, as well as days of local support.
    • Group interaction plan when not at SESYNC.
    • Timeline for work and products. Successful projects are expected to provide SESYNC documentation of progress after each team meeting.

Short CVs of team leads (2 pages for each)

Include ONLY the CVs of the team leads. Do not include talks, society memberships, or papers in preparation.

Potential Participants

Download the Excel spreadsheet provided and complete the template using the column headers listed below for all participants. This should be uploaded separately from your proposal PDF to the online webform.

The makeup of your team should be as follows:

  • Core team: 5–7 PhD students on each team; must be enrolled graduate students at the time of Pursuit launch in April 2016 and remain students through spring of 2017.
    • Team leads: Up to two members of the core team. Include a separate statement indicating how each team lead has demonstrated academic proficiency and establishment within his/her program. Academic proficiency varies amongst disciplines and institutions, and may include having passed qualifying exams and/or dissertation proposal defenses.
  • External experts (optional): Two individuals (e.g., policy professionals, academic faculty, postdocs, and members of end user communities). External experts will not receive a stipend and will not attend all team meetings.

The Excel spreadsheet includes the following column headers:

  • Last Name
  • First Name
  • Affiliation (include department)
  • Role on Team (Team Lead, Core Member, or External Expert)
  • Email Address
  • Website Address
  • Primary Area of Expertise
  • Secondary Area of Expertise
  • Confirmed Team Member (Y/N)
  • Prior Collaboration with Applicants (Y/N)
  • Month and Year Entered PhD Program (please indicate “PT” for part-time student)
  • Month and Year Advanced to Candidacy or Anticipated Advancement to Candidacy
  • Month and Year Anticipated Graduation
  • All But Dissertation (ABD) (Y/N)
  • Advisor’s Name

We ask that you download and complete the Excel spreadsheet, and then upload it separately to the online form once you are ready to submit your full application.

Faculty Advisor Letter

A letter of recommendation and support from each core team member’s faculty advisor should be sent directly to SESYNC, separately from your application. In addition to offering their recommendation, advisors should include a written confirmation that their student will be able to participate throughout the duration of the Pursuit, and that the activity will contribute to their student’s ongoing scholarship. As appropriate, the letter should also specifically address advisors' policies for their students' use of lab-generated and/or dissertation data in SESYNC Pursuits.

Letters of recommendation and support should be sent directly to research@sesync.org from each core team member’s faculty advisor no later than January 5, 2016, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).


Click here apply for a Graduate Student Pursuit using SESYNC’s online submission system. Complete applications are due no later than January 5, 2016, at 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).


Email: research@sesync.org

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