Eight institutional practices to support interdisciplinary research

By Margaret Palmer, Jonathan Kramer, James Boyd, and David Hawthorne

Margaret Palmer (biography)

How can institutions help enhance interdisciplinary team success? We share eight practices we have developed at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) which was launched in 2011 with funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Jonathan Kramer (biography)

The center supports newly formed research teams from anywhere in the world to work collaboratively at its facility. The teams synthesize existing theories and data to advance understanding of socio-environmental systems and the ability to solve environmental problems.

1. Collaborative project development

Given the mission to build capacity in socio-environmental research, SESYNC leadership and staff discuss and provide feed-back to teams on proposed projects, and iterate with the team leads to revise proposals based on input from expert reviewers. A highly interactive panel review process facilitated by SESYNC leadership is designed not only to identify strong proposals, but to explore how projects might be improved by sharpening questions or considering new methods, clarifying conceptual frameworks, expanding or changing team composition (expertise, disciplinary diversity and degree of prior collaboration), or consideration of additional data.

James Boyd (biography)

2. Project planning

David Hawthorne (biography)

Prior to the first meeting of a team, the leads (principal investigators) participate in individualized webinars with a core set of SESYNC staff that focuses exclusively on their project. This discussion gives all a better understanding of the scholarly problem and further introduces the principal investigators to the resources at SESYNC. A set of standard queries is posed, examining issues regarding data (access, amounts, quantitative or qualitative nature), logistics and anticipated epistemological hurdles associated with the interdisciplinary team. Special emphasis is placed on the central role(s) team leaders play in promoting effective team process.

3. Team leaders workshop

Team leads of projects funded by SESYNC come together with principal investigators from other projects funded about the same time for two days of interactive work; often the principal investigators are part of a common SESYNC research theme (eg., ‘biodiversity and ecosystem services’). Team leads share their research framework and early project management approaches as well as data and proposed methods. They also discuss team composition and participate in sessions focused on the challenges of managing an interdisciplinary research effort. The workshop provides an opportunity for teams to discover joint interests, potentially form new collaborations, and engage in an explicit discussion of team dynamics.

4. Team meeting design

For a number of teams, advice on effective meeting structure is very useful. Meetings with SESYNC staff (in person or remotely) are offered to focus on pre-meeting activities and specific goal oriented agendas that balance group work with time for individual reflection.

5. Team meeting facilitation

Meeting facilitation is also offered to all teams. In most cases, this requires a significant interaction between the facilitator and the team leads. The facilitator (a SESYNC staff member with extensive experience working with socio-environmental teams) becomes knowledgeable of the problem and the language of the scholarship before the first meeting and tailors the facilitation process to the specific team needs and preferences. Facilitation, particularly in projects’ early phases, often focuses on the development of a shared conceptual framework and is designed to enhance the involvement of all team members and the sharing of diverse perspectives on the problem.

6. Computational support

A comprehensive list of computational, database and communication support tools are made available to all teams working at SESYNC. A dedicated 8-member team of computational and IT experts is available to help in advance of or during team meetings. These experts work to understand the unique needs of each research effort and often assist as participants combine and analyze diverse (quantitative and qualitative) types of data. SESYNC staff spend considerable time assisting groups in pre-processing data sets and identifying analytical methods. Ongoing engagement between these staff and team members is a key component of SESYNC’s support structure.

7 and 8. Check-in meetings and project enhancements

Staff and leadership utilize both informal and formal opportunities to gather information from teams as they progress with their project. Team reporting, casual conversations and shared lunches with teams in residence as well as structured meetings and webinars with teams reveal both progress and ongoing or emergent challenges. In many cases, leadership and staff use this information to provide additional support (eg., fund a new team member from a different discipline, or provide computational support, training for a team member or additional facilitation). These interactions also provide opportunities to link teams with potentially shared interests and to invite new projects.


The SESYNC process, captured in the diagram, is a set of reflexive practices for fostering team progress in which staff iteratively engage with team members over the life of their research project. Each dark blue rectangle indicates a group of SESYNC practices that all teams have access to; light blue rectangles are groups of practices that a subset of teams has utilized.

We would be interested to hear about your experiences of institutional facilitators and barriers to interdisciplinary research.

Further reading:
For more information about SESYNC and its support for interdisciplinary research, see:

  • Palmer, M. A., Kramer, J. G., Boyd, J. and Hawthorne, D. (2016). Practices for facilitating interdisciplinary synthetic research: The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 19: 111-122.
    DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2016.01.002

Biography: Margaret Palmer PhD is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and Director of SESYNC. She is an international expert on the restoration of streams and rivers, and has worked extensively on the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem processes, the biogeochemistry of streams and wetlands, and organism dispersal in aquatic ecosystems. She is also known for her work at the interface of water science and policy, having served as a technical advisor and innovator to help build solution-focused teams that solve problems with social, legal, policy and scientific aspects.

Biography: Jon Kramer PhD is the Director of Interdisciplinary Science for SESYNC. He has worked to apply new approaches to link science to policy development and decision-making in the environmental arena. Of particular interest is the use of facilitation, synthesis and consensus building to help address critical issues in the coastal arena as well as the development of effective science outreach mechanisms. Jon is engaged in efforts that foster organizational development, strategic planning and management to strengthen science-based organizations.

Biography: James Boyd PhD is the Director of Social Science and Policy at SESYNC and a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future, Washington DC and Director of RFF’s Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth. An economist by training, his work focuses on the measurement and management of ecological wealth, goods, and services.

Biography: David Hawthorne PhD, the Director of Education for SESYNC, is an Associate Professor in Entomology at the University of Maryland. He has contributed to research and regulatory efforts for the sustainable use of transgenic corn, and he studies insect speciation, particularly that driven by adaptation to different host plants. He teaches courses targeting both the most advanced graduate students and non-majors undergraduates.

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