Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

By Andrew Campbell

Andrew Campbell (biography)

When we think of research infrastructure, it is easy to associate astronomers with telescopes, oceanographers with research vessels and physicists with particle accelerators.

But what sort of research infrastructure (if any) do we need in order to do more effective multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research on big, complex, ‘wicked’ challenges like climate change or food security?

Some eminent colleagues and I argue in a new paper (Baron et al., 2017) that the answers include:

  • good coffee, beer, wine and food;
  • in distraction-free places that are nevertheless supported by leading-edge informatics;
  • which attract diverse groups of scientists (by discipline, gender, age, career stage, location);
  • to work on and across heterogeneous datasets; and,
  • in skilfully facilitated processes designed to foster ‘a balanced mix of rationality and adventurous association… creative unstructured thought and discussion.’

More than twenty years ago, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Ecological Society of America and the Association of Ecological Research Centers identified the need for a place to undertake “multidisciplinary analysis of complex environmental problems” with the core functions being seen as advancing basic science, organising complex information so as to be more useful for decision-makers, and making better use of existing data.

The NSF funded the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1995, and subsequently invested in a further three centers, the most recent being the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) at the University of Maryland. Over that period more than a dozen other synthesis centres have been established around the world, funded by a range of organisations.

The most common activity of synthesis centres is support for working groups of up to 20 people, who come together for intensive collaboration:

  • for several days at a time;
  • often across a series of meetings over up to three years; and,
  • supported by dedicated research staff and sophisticated informatics to assist with integration and analysis of heterogeneous data.

Teams are usually constructed with care to deliberately combine experts with different backgrounds, expertise and perspectives to explore a given topic through multiple lenses.

In terms of physical infrastructure, scientific synthesis centres may indeed look like boutique hotels in cool places with top notch WiFi, characterised more by their break-out spaces and nearby restaurants and mountain bike trails than their labs or auditoriums. But the real infrastructure is mostly not hardware but informatics software and insight about dynamic social processes of scientific discourse and inquiry.

The six critical ingredients identified in our paper (the authors of which include ten current or former directors of synthesis centres) are:

  1. active management of social dynamics and intellectual space;
  2. cutting edge informatics;
  3. organisational flexibility;
  4. support for students, postdocs and sabbatical fellows;
  5. diversity within working groups; and,
  6. offering time and space (physical and intellectual) for group associative thinking.

These are in line with factors identified by Margaret Palmer and colleagues in their blog post on eight institutional practices to support interdisciplinary research.

Parker and Hackett (2012) note that focused time away from outside distraction led to “hot spots and hot moments” of unusually high creativity, enabling potentially transformative science.

There is strong bibliometric evidence that collaborations fostered in synthesis centres (reflected in co-authorship) last well beyond the synthesis-centre activity, and that interdisciplinary collaboration and the number of co-authors increases research productivity and impact. Bob Costanza and colleagues (1997) produced one of the most highly-cited papers of all time through an NCEAS workshop.

Telescopes, research vessels and particle accelerators are undoubtedly important tools for enabling humans to understand more about our world. But coming up with policy and management solutions for grand societal challenges requires much more than fancy scientific ‘kit’. It requires the combined insights of talented people from multiple perspectives (not all of them scientific), using multiple, diverse and often incomplete data, to develop new ideas interactively. We are learning from experience some of the ingredients for fostering such processes, and our new paper attempts to distil these lessons.

I’d welcome readers’ comments on your experiences in synthesis centers, or other focused time away from outside distraction.

To find out more:
Baron, J. S., Specht, A., Garnier, E., Bishop, P., Campbell, A., Davis, F. W., Fady, B., Field, D., Gross, L. J., Guru, S. M., Halpern, B. S., Hampton, S. E., Leavitt, P. R., Meagher, T. R., Ometto, J., Parker, J. N., Price, R., Rawson, C. H., Rodrigo, A., Sheble, L. A., and Winter, M. (2017). Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure. BioScience, 67(8): 750-759. Online (Free): Online (DOI): 10.1093/biosci/bix053


Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., Limburg, K., Naeem, S., O’Neill, R. V., Paruelo, J., Raskin, R. G., Sutton, P. and van den Belt, M. (1997). The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387: 253-260.

Parker J. N. and Hackett E. J. (2012). Hot spots and hot moments in scientific collaborations and social movements. American Sociological Review, 77: 21–44.

Biography: Andrew Campbell is the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, in Canberra Australia. He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, and a Commissioner with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas. His research interests span the interactions between climate, water, energy and agrifood systems, and the interface between knowledge, science and policy.

8 thoughts on “Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure”

  1. All well said! In terms of the comments of data repositories and open science being outside synthesis centres, perhaps its time to more actively bring them in? Synthesis centres have so far been extremely successful models for catalyzing research in ecology, evolution and environmental science, but we also need to continue re-imagining them in ways that keep them at the vanguard. One way to do this is to position them at the interface of ideas and data, and to encourage a blurring on in-person and online collaborations. What do you think the synthesis centre of 2027 will look like?

  2. Dear Kirsten,

    Decision makers can be highly effective participants in synthesis activities, but we have found it matters who you invite to collaborate. You want to select for people who are respectful of others, who listen, have open minds, and not diminate either the conversation or the ideas. In other words, avoid prima donnas. At the Powell Center we also had Working Groups who set a few additional ground rules for discussion. Specifically, you are welcome to criticise (hopefully with respect and constructively) other ideas but only if you also offer up constructive suggestions for improvement. No tearing down of ideas, only suggestions ot make them better. One additional ground rule was also important: if a member presents his or her ideas, they must also present their weaknesses. No idea is perfect, and having to explain its fualts keeps people humble.

  3. This chimes with the idea of a transformation-lab or T-lab (see recent blog – and the importance of ‘chopping and chatting’ to develop the conditions for creative interactions).We, at the James Hutton Institute, are running our first as part of the upcoming Transformations Conference in Dundee, Scotland next week (29th August – 1st September 2017). Whilst we have little control over the setting, the refreshments or the participants, we are very focussed on planning a flexible, dynamic yet structured sessions that maximises the opportunity for emergent ideas. It will test and develop our facilitation skills which we see are as essential to our practice as applied academics as other skills of theory building or publications.

  4. I couldn’t agree more. And even better if we can come up with evidence for funders that these are indeed the ingredients to ‘make it work’.

  5. I’ve had a good experience with synthesis centres too, and a lot of this rings true. I think it would be useful, however, to highlight their role within the broader context of synthesis research infrastructure. Data repositories, open science tools and shared document stores are also useful outside the context of a synthesis centre. I would add to the list synthesis-oriented publications (including blogs) and regular conferences. Arguably, well-designed boundary objects are even more important than the boundary organisations that produce them, because they allow the synthesis activity to extend its reach to a broader audience over time.

    The way I see it, synthesis centres are a catalyst. Many other factors need to be present for success, and the reaction may still happen (slowly) without a synthesis centre. But in a world that emphasizes impact, it would be foolish not to make use of available catalysts.

    Funding for synthesis centres yes, but only if accompanied by support for other necessary synthesis infrastructure. It appears the blog and paper do hint at this already…?

    • Hi Joseph

      Yes indeed. We are not suggesting that just getting a diverse bunch of smart people together in nice surroundings free from distraction is all you need to do. Sophisticated informatics, data repositories and open science stories etc as you say are also very useful tools. In environmental science, it is crucial to have good data to analyse, and as many of the issues we are concerned about occur over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, the continuity of datasets is crucial, and this often requires investment in equipment for sensing, monitoring and analysing diverse data.

  6. Great post! I like the parameters that you lay out above and have experienced some of the benefits while participating in the SESYNC co-creative capacity pursuit. I’m thinking about using this model in community development work around reducing poverty. That kind of a transfer would require inviting decision makers (agency leads, politicians, service participants) into the space effectively. Do you have any thoughts about that?


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: