Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

Community member post by Andrew Campbell

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): https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/594800f9e4b062508e3442f7. Online (DOI): 10.1093/biosci/bix053

References:

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.

Responsive research – simple, right? The AskFuse case study

Community member post by Rosemary Rushmer

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Rosemary Rushmer (biography)

Researchers are constantly being challenged to demonstrate that their research can make a difference and has impact. Practice and policy partners are similarly challenged to demonstrate that their decisions and activity are informed by the evidence base. It sounds like all we need to do is join the two groups together – simple, right?

In Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, www.fuse.ac.uk) we wanted to do exactly that. We wanted to supply the evidence that end-users said they wanted (supply and demand), and make it easy for them to access and use research evidence.

Yet, we knew that current approaches to supplying evidence (briefs, guidelines, publications) do not work as well as we once thought they did. It needed a re-think… Continue reading

Keys to transformation: Interactions of values, rules and knowledge

Community member post by Russell Gorddard, Matthew Colloff, Russell Wise and Michael Dunlop

Adapting to climate change can require profound alterations in environmental management and policy. However the social context of a decision process limits options and resists change, often dooming attempts to adapt to climate change even before they begin. How can decision makers in policy and management more effectively see the institutional and social water they swim in, in order to better drive change?

Values, rules and knowledge (vrk) provide a useful heuristic to help decision makers analyze how the social system shapes their decision context. Put simply, decisions require:

  • knowledge of options and their implications
  • values to assess the options
  • rules that enable implementation.
gorddard_values-rules-knowledge
Figure adapted from original in Gordardd et al. (2016)

Viewing the decision context as an interconnected system of values, rules and knowledge can reveal limits to adaptation and suggest strategies for addressing them (Gorddard et al. 2016).

Values are the set of ethical precepts that determine the way people select actions and evaluate events.

Rules are both rules-in-use (norms, practices, habits, heuristics) and rules-in-form (regulations, laws, directives).

Knowledge is both evidence-based (scientific and technical) knowledge and experiential knowledge.

Decision context is the subset of interacting subsystems that are at play in a particular decision process. One core idea is that the decision context may exclude relevant values, knowledge or rules from being considered in decisions. Adaptation may therefore involve change in the decision context.

russell-gorddard
Russell Gorddard (biography)

matt-colloff
Matthew Colloff (biography)

russell-wise
Russell Wise (biography)

michael-dunlop
Michael Dunlop (biography)

Continue reading

Impacts of social learning in transformative research

Community member post by Flurina Schneider, Lara M. Lundsgaard-Hansen, Thoumthone Vongvisouk, and Julie G. Zähringer

flurina-schneider
Flurina Schneider (biography)

How can science truly support sustainability transformations?

In our research projects we often find that the very process of co-producing knowledge with stakeholders has transformative impacts. This requires careful design and implementation. Knowledge co-production in transdisciplinary and other research leads to social learning and can make a difference in the lives of those involved. Continue reading

Going beyond ‘context matters’: A lens to bridge knowledge and policy

Community member post by Leandro Echt and Vanesa Weyrauch

leandro-echt
Leandro Echt (biography)

The role and importance of context in the interaction between research and policy is widely recognized. It features in general literature on the subject, in case studies on how research has successfully influenced policy (or not), and in practitioners´ reflections on the results of their work. But how does context specifically matter? Can we move beyond generic statements?

vanesa-weyrauch
Vanesa Weyrauch (biography)

To find some answers to these complex questions, Politics & Ideas and the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) embarked on a joint knowledge systematization effort, combining a literature review with in-depth interviews with 48 experts and policymakers, mostly in developing countries.

What do we mean by context?

Our first challenge was to define what we concretely mean by context. Continue reading

A primer on policy entrepreneurs

Community member post by Jo Luetjens

jo-luetjens
Jo Luetjens (biography)

In the world of public policy, it is interesting to consider how and why particular policy ideas catch on. What is it that makes some ideas succeed and others fail? By examining the role of policy entrepreneurs we may come closer to an answer. In making policy change happen, what – and who – are policy entrepreneurs? Why are they important? What strategies do they use to effect change? And finally, what are the attributes of a successful policy entrepreneur?

The what

Policy entrepreneurs are energetic people who work with others in and around policymaking venues to promote significant policy change. Continue reading