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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.

Should Ecology be More Like a Smartphone?

September 17, 2013

Research Assistant

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.”

Photo: Dave Lawler, Creative Commons


Conservation Trade-offs: A Continued Conversation with SESYNC Scholars

September 16, 2013

Communications Coordinator

The following is the second in a two-part conversation facilitated between leading scholars affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). To read part one, click here.

Dr. Ray Hilborn: he’s kind of a big deal. People know him. So when we read his shrewdly-written opinion piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), we knew it would generate much interest amongst SESYNC scholars and those concerned with the complex interactions between humans and the ecosystems in which they live. (We were right.)

SESYNC-funded scientists Dr. Taylor Ricketts and Dr. Brendan Fisher recently offered a few responses to Dr. Hilborn’s insights into the “Environmental cost of conservation victories”—among them:

  • 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.

Top photo: Brian Hoffman, Flickr/Creative Commons

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Conservation Trade-offs: A Conversation with SESYNC Scholars

September 3, 2013


Communications Coordinator

What are the unintended consequences of closing off large marine areas to fishing? Is a fish saved a forest lost?

Dr. Ray Hilborn, a former member of SESYNC’s External Advisory Board and a Professor of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington, has argued that marine protected areas (MPAs) have far-reaching consequences beyond their prescribed conservation objectives. In a recent opinion piece published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Dr. Hilborn wrote that “… marine conservation has never considered the costs associated with food production when evaluating closing large portions of the ocean to fishing.” But a closer look at an MPA that restricts local fishing activities may in fact lead to increased fish imports from aquaculture and capture fisheries, or to an increased reliance on land-based food production, which may open new lands to cultivation, and/or give rise to intensified land exploitation.

I recently sat down with two of SESYNC’s funded scientists—Dr. Taylor Ricketts, Director of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and a Senior Fellow at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Dr. Brendan Fisher, Conservation Scientist at WWF and Fellow at the Gund Institute—for responses to Dr. Hilborn’s PNAS article. Below are excerpts from that conversation.

Melissa: Thank you, gentlemen, for your time and for talking with me about Ray’s piece. Can we start with some initial reactions—what does it mean that conservation actions should be considered globally rather than in isolation? What does it mean for centers such as SESYNC?

Dr. Ricketts: One thing that we really agree with Ray on is that the implications of any conservation action are global, not just local—that basic point is really beyond dispute. This makes the world more complicated for a conservationist, and it makes the need for centers like SESYNC even more important: to analyze the complicated relationships between an ecological system that’s being changed by things like MPAs and the social and economic systems that flow from such governance efforts.

Dr. Fisher: And I want to agree with a more subtle point of Ray’s article in that the linkages between terrestrial and marine systems in relation to food security aren’t often thought of. As a globe, our populations are becoming more coastal—and coastal populations, especially in the developing world, rely on a suite of strategies to meet their needs. So, linking fisheries activities with impacts on agriculture and vice versa is really important.

Dr. Ricketts: One reason it’s easy to agree with the article is that the basic issue isn’t particularly new or unique to fisheries. There’s a pretty widely-used word for what Ray’s talking about, and that’s “leakage.” It’s the idea that if you stop some activity in one place, it will “leak” to someplace else. The classic example is that China has banned forestry on much of its land. Now, that’s heralded as a big conservation success, but you can also trace upticks in Malaysian logging and logging in many other places around the world as a consequence of that ban in China. The carbon world and carbon market is very interested in the concept of leakage. If you reduce deforestation to prevent emissions of carbon and greenhouse gasses in one place, will logging just increase somewhere else?

Melissa: Excellent points. Did anything within Ray’s article give you pause?

Dr. Ricketts: There’s another common concept here that Ray doesn’t highlight, and that’s “spillover.” A lot of work has asked whether MPAs actually have local benefits. Ray’s article assumes that if you prevent fishing in an area, then that local community is “out” of fish. But there’s a lot of work that shows that an MPA actually increases the fish biomass and the yield around it. Fishermen learn very quickly to fish the boundary of an MPA, where they can actually get more fish because they spill over from the off-limits, productive MPA region. So it’s not a complete loss to fishermen. It may not be an immediate effect, but that benefit builds up over time—and in some cases, communities may not have to go elsewhere for their fish, because spillover is such that you’re getting as much locally.

In that respect, I think there are some factors that make the situation a little less worrying than the article suggests. In addition, for example, less than two percent of the world’s oceans are under MPA protection. So while we do need to think about the points Ray’s article addresses, it’s also difficult to argue that enormous amounts of fisheries are being lost to MPAs globally, because the global impacts to fisheries are marginal. Do you agree with that, Brendan?

Dr. Fisher: Yes, absolutely. I’ll just pick up on Taylor’s time component—there might be local costs immediately, but perhaps local and global benefits later.

Ray’s article also makes a subtle point about distribution aspects and how actions taken by developed countries such as the United States and Australia impact less developed countries such as Indonesia and Peru. I would say that it’s really important, considering the incredibly complex and linked challenges that the world is facing at a global scale, that we think about distribution—especially in terms of the poorest countries that are the most vulnerable to environmental change. So we’ve got population pressure, food insecurity, climate change, ocean acidification: all of these things will differentially impact certain vulnerable populations in parts of the world that really just couldn’t stand any additional stressors.

But what we’re talking about here, and why Ray talks about the cost of conservation victories—this falls under what we often consider net cost or net benefit. And in social cost-benefit analysis in economics, it’s all about that “net.” So if we’re going to talk about the negative impacts of MPAs on some fishing populations and global food insecurity, we need to also talk about the positive impacts of MPAs—not just for fisheries but for multiple objectives, including biodiversity, resilience for the future, etc. We definitely need to look at both sides of the coin, and we need to be inclusive about all of those things.

In terms of SESYNC, I think SESYNC’s basic foundation is uniquely set up for that framework, in that we’re talking about socio-economic syntheses of environmental challenges. So immediately, SESYNC was set up to think about impacts that are outside of exclusively ecological, social, or economic influences, but the whole suite of things. So again, we think about the term “net” in those cases.

Melissa: The article obviously prompts further discussion. But Ray only had 800 words to lay out his argument. So what’s the next important point to be made? If you were writing a formal response to Ray’s article, what would you want your 800 words to say?

Dr. Ricketts: I like Brendan’s framework of this social cost-benefit analysis, both locally and globally. I think you have to do a really good job of netting out all of the good things that an MPA does, and all the bad things that an MPA does locally. And then you have to do a really good job of netting out all of the good things that an MPA does, and all the bad things that an MPA does globally. That’s exactly what Brendan was just talking about—it’s not just about fish supply, but it’s also about biodiversity and tourism and other forms of livelihood.

It’s kind of the full-blown version of what Ray is calling for, which is a spatially comprehensive evaluation. The full version would also be comprehensive across all benefits and costs. I think that would be a very interesting thing to do, and it’s a very SESYNC thing to do, as well.

Dr. Fisher: I would say that the frontier is even bigger than the conversation about the net benefits of MPAs, picking up on the connectedness between the terrestrial and the marine. So for me, the next point is thinking about how the benefits and costs of MPAs link to changes on the land. Global food security is really going to be this dance between how we manage our forests, how we manage our farmland, how we manage our grasslands, and how we manage our marine resources. In some areas, we might think that protection of a marine resource is important for a whole bunch of social benefits including biodiversity or resilience of coral reefs, which might impinge on some terrestrial system. So we just need to be transparent about all of those costs and benefits.

This kind of relates to the SESYNC project that Taylor and I lead: we’re trying to understand globally how conditions on the land or in the sea affect human health, and they’re going to be different for different parts of the world. Hopefully, what we’ll be able to do is to think about, at least regionally, statistical models that show that a change in forest cover or governance of a forest impacts health and social benefits. And then once we get there, thinking about how those changes ripple across space and time—linking back to our earlier points—“what are the leakage and spillover effects of those changes?”

Melissa: Thank you both! It’s been great talking with you, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing some of the results from your SESYNC project on the linkages between environment and human health.

The preceding is the first in a two-part conversation facilitated between leading scholars affiliated with the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). To read part two, click here.

Photo: Point Dume, an MPA in California
Credit: Ana Luisa Ahern, Creative Commons

Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies

August 19, 2013

Assistant Director, Education and Outreach


What are the topics, concepts, and competencies associated with teaching socio-environmental synthesis (SES)?


By glancing at this word cloud generated by participants of Teaching Socio-Environmental Synthesis with Case Studies, the short course recently hosted at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), it is clear that SES involves a broad suite of topics, concepts, and competencies. However, the words above—though they hint at the complexity of SES—still do not capture the essence of what it means to teach SES, as it is more than just a collection of topics, concepts, and competencies. Rather, it is a problem-solving approach, and the key to learning about SES lies in the examples—in the details of the profound socio-environmental problems that SES addresses.

Stories are keys to student learning. Teaching is most effective when students are engaged, and a compelling way to draw students in is to relate the lesson to something students care about and are interested in. This is the basis of the case study method of teaching, a high-impact, active-learning pedagogy. Given the problem-based focus of SES, this approach is a good fit for teaching SES. Thus, a course that introduces participants to this teaching approach and helps them build SES-focused case study activities of their own serves as a good place to start our short course offerings.

The short course, held at SESYNC on July 23–26, 2013, drew 41 participants from across the country, and one participant from across the Atlantic. Participants included professors, graduate students, and postdocs from a variety of disciplines in the natural and social sciences, all with varying degrees of familiarity with SES. Each participant, whether as part of a team or as an individual, came to the course prepared to write their own SES case study. Following an introductory day focused on addressing the question of “what does it mean to teach socio-environmental synthesis,” participants then focused on the question of how to teach SES and were introduced to case study teaching by Dr. Clyde Herreid, Director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, who expertly guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them develop their own cases.

Participants quickly discovered—as SESYNC postdocs Dr. Judy Che-Castaldo and Dr. William Burnside and I discovered earlier when writing two SES cases of our own for this course—that writing a SES case study for use in a classroom can be very challenging given the complexity of socio-environmental problems. However, participants also discovered the appeal of teaching SES with the case study method. Not only is it an active and engaging way to teach, but it is also a flexible approach that lends itself well to modification for different courses. Of the many types of case study activities, several are particularly appropriate for teaching the collaborative and interdisciplinary competencies critical for SES. For example, for a case that Dr. Che-Castaldo, Dr. Burnside, and I wrote on endangered species recovery, students work collaboratively in small groups to prioritize conservation efforts for a small number of endangered species based on several data sets. When this exercise is used with students from different majors, it also becomes an exercise in interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the 3 1/2 day course, a steady buzz of conversation filled the common area of SESYNC as participants dove into writing their cases. Once completed, this collection of SES-related case studies teaching activities will be made available online for others to use either in their own classrooms or as templates for developing their own activities.

The course ended as it began—with words from the participants. This time, a response to how they were feeling at the end of the course: “motivated,” “inspired,” “overwhelmed,” “informed,” “encouraged,” and “pumped!” If I were to add a word, it would be “grateful”—for the opportunity to meet this insightful and dedicated group of scientists and educators.

Examining the Ecology & Sociology Behind the Urban Mosquito

August 12, 2013

Sophie Jin
Sophie gives a tour of the lab she worked in this summer.


“Hey kid! Do you like science?”


Right after he replied, the boy returned to tending his bean plant along his window still. A few moments later, he pointed to our caddies full of bottles of filthy water, turkey basters, and siphons, asking us to explain what we were up to.

As a SESYNC intern, I am spending my summer with Dr. Leisnham’s lab at the University of Maryland College Park, helping a project studying urban mosquito vectors and their social and ecological factors.

Baltimore holds a diverse population of people, with neighborhoods that sit on both ends of the spectrum in terms of income and education. Low-income neighborhoods are marked by trash and dilapidated buildings. They often host unkempt containers and tires, which collect standing water: ideal conditions for mosquito larvae. High-income neighborhoods display fountains, fish ponds, and empty trash cans turned over and tucked away. Through social and ecological research methods, the project hopes to better understand how the different environmental and social structures of Baltimore’s neighborhoods contribute to its mosquito population.

Mosquitoes may only be a nuisance to many Baltimore residents. But as the city acts as an international hub, it risks introduction to new and foreign diseases. Epidemics such as Malaria, Dengue fever, and West Nile virus show the importance of keeping mosquitoes under control as they are excellent vectors for disease, making mosquitoes a significant human health concern.

The research project requires extensive field work in the Baltimore community surveying residents, trapping mosquitoes, and collecting water from potential breeding areas. Some days we may carry large white cylindrical mosquito traps and coolers of smoking dry ice (which releases CO2, a mosquito attractant). Other days we may carry caddies while siphoning water samples of mosquito larvae into bottles. We certainly present a curious sight and naturally, people ask questions.

Communicating our work in the neighborhoods of Baltimore resulted in varying responses, from an appreciative “Thank you for your work” to a dismissive door shut. Amidst the mixed reactions, it is uplifting to see community members, such as the boy who claims to “dislike” science, show interest in what we are doing and hopefully learn that there is more to the urban mosquito than an itchy bump.

Trash collects in an alley in Union Park, Baltimore. Trash and tires can hold water and host mosquito larvae.


LaDeau SL, Leisnham PT, Biehler D, Bodner D. Higher Mosquito Production in Low-Income Neighborhoods of Baltimore and Washington, DC: Understanding Ecological Drivers and Mosquito-Borne Disease Risk in Temperate Cities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2013; 10(4):1505–1526.

About this blog:

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)’s Internship Program provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects, and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. These events include trips to SESYNC facilities in Annapolis, where interns are introduced to the socio-environmental synthesis research approach.

Above, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns, Sophie Jin.

SESYNC Word on the Street: Epistemology

August 9, 2013

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.

Watch the video below:

Word on the Street archive:
Wicked Problem

Workshop Application

Workshops are single meetings of up to 30 participants that focus on a broad topic or a set of related topics. Workshops may summarize and/or synthesize the state of the topic and/or identify future directions that have the potential to lead to a larger synthesis effort. We are particularly interested in Workshops that bring together new combinations of individuals and disciplines.


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