Panel 1: Reflections on NCEAS

Panel 1- Reflections on the first 16 years of NCEAS: key scientific contributions and lessons learned

Moderator: Bruce Kendall
Panelists: Margaret Palmer, Pete Peterson, Sally Hacker, Michael Pace.  (Bill Fagan joined the panel, as Margaret was unable to attend due to personal reasons)

14 thoughts on “Panel 1: Reflections on NCEAS

  1. What do you think has been the most important scientific accomplishment of NCEAS? The 100 most-cited papers are listed elsewhere on this website (under “General Information”), but citation rate is an imperfect measure of scientific importance.

    Please post a reply with your thoughts on the NCEAS activity or product that has had the biggest influence on scientific understanding in your area of ecology.

  2. The emphasis on bringing together folks with diverse backgrounds that had not previously worked together has changed the way some of us think and approach scientific problems. This is somewhat difficult to quantify but I imagine many former participants are much more likely to engage in interdisciplinary science than those who have not had this opportunity.

  3. To a large extent NCEAS itself is NCEAS greatest accomplishment. NCEAS represents a paradigm change in the ways we ecologists do science, its very existence is a symptom of the maturation of ecology. Its major impact is intangible; NCEAS brought two words to prominence synthesis and collaboration.

  4. Another unusual aspect of of NCEAS working groups was the inclusion of graduate students and the way these students were embraced as collaborators. My first interaction with NCEAS was as a young grad student on the ‘Spatial Ecology’ working group led by Dave Tilman. Although a bit unsettling, the opportunity to interact with and work with one’s ‘ecological heroes’, was both inspirational and very influential on my own later career.

  5. Interesting to hear folks talking about interdiciplinarity. I would not say this is a PRIMARY accomplishment of NCEAS, though we can certainly point to working groups and publication products that are good examples of interdisciplinary synthesis. I would instead say that COLLABORATION is a necessary first step toward successful interdiciplinarity, and it is in fact the revolution in the way that ecologists work — data sharing, coming together around an issue or a problem from diverse perspectives, confronting models with data — that is the NCEAS legacy.

    • Yes, I would agree esp when you think about the really successfull and influential working groups. However it seems like more recent working groups have tried to be more interdisciplinary.

      • I would argue that interdiciplinarity IS a primary accomplishment of NCEAS. The reality is that we all work in university departments and attend societal meetings but all of these structures are actually barriers to interdisiciplinarity. I believe that we, often subconsciously, avoid contact with scientists from different disciplines. We often speak different scientific ‘languages’ and their are few personal linkages with scientists outside of our traditional scientific domains. However, I think that one of the most productive and unique aspects of NCEAS has been providing a neutral venue where scientists from vastly different disciplines can come together, learn from one another and collaborate. These collaborations have produced perhaps the most important and influential products of the Center.

  6. From: Margaret Palmer
    NCEAS Board member (2001-2004), chair (2003-2004)
    NCEAS projects: Developing the conceptual basis of restoration biology (E Allen led); Ecological
    consequences of altered hydrological regimes (Naiman led); National River Restoration
    Science Synthesis project (Palmer led); ESA Visions project (Palmer led); etc.

    March 21, 2012

    Dear friends and colleagues,
    I am so sorry I am not able to be at the meeting in person. I had really been looking forward to it. I am sure my son will be fine but we need to get through the next few days with no more complications.

    Many of you will be talking about the transformative role NCEAS has played including precipitating major cultural changes among our community. My task today is to talk about how NCEAS influenced the design of the new National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (pronounced sặ-sink) and how our ecological community could build on that.

    In designing SESYNC (sặ-sink), we starting by asking what the key attributes of NCEAS were that made it so successful, which ones could we build on that are consistent with the SESYNC mission, and what new challenges we face. The most basic NCEAS attribute that we wanted to emulate is the sense of the center as a retreat that promotes focused, creative scholarship – logistical needs are met, a warm staff and comfortable setting is provided, and at day’s end there is a wealth of great restaurants in a fun city. This would help explain why we located SESYNC in the old Annapolis town center, included in our design a huge ‘living room’ with an open kitchen & bar at the end and with meeting rooms & offices on the periphery. Annapolis may not be “la-la land” (as so many of us have affectionately called the Santa Barbara location!) but it does have plenty of great restaurants, bars, and history. The NCEAS core value of serving the community is also something SESYNC sought to emulate – so rpf’s are driven by community input and we worked hard to get substantial financial support from UM so that the NSF funds could be used to fund participants. The entire leadership team from UM is funded by UM…not NSF. For now and the foreseeable future all staff members are also funded by UM.

    NCEAS has had long tradition of investing in ecoinformatics. The collaborative IT groups it helped build remain committed to advancing data management and other informatics tools for the community, so the design of SESYNC assumes we will make use of these tools while contributing in some new areas. For example, we are now working with a broad community to identify visualization challenges associated with analysis of geospatial data that is temporally dynamic – this is a particular need within the social science community. In fact, our first cyber workshop which is this July will focus on this topic and how to move forward in meeting these needs. All of you are invited to attend – see our website for more information. If you can’t come, can you identify specific needs for visualization tools –
    1. What challenges are associated with interpreting or communicating complex and dynamic geospatial data or results that may benefit from new visualization tools?

    NCEAS set the stage for collaborating with social scientists, especially geographers working on land use change. SESYNC is charged with taking this to new heights. We will be devoting as much money to the social science community as we are to the natural science community. Indeed, right now we have an open call for social science fellowships and we are part way through development of a “Foundations of Socio-environmental Synthesis Series” – it will provide funding for groups of social scientists to meet and identify, from the perspective of their domains, the priority research questions related to the structure, functioning, and sustainability of socio-environmental systems. This series will produce articles appropriate for the domain journals relevant to each group, AS WELL AS, articles that translate the findings in ways understandable to the ecological and environmental communities. The domain scholars will be representing very diverse disciplines and sub-disciplines from cultural anthropology, environmental sociology, cognitive psychology, institutional & governance structure studies, behavioral economics, and other areas.

    Lest you think this is sounding too stove-piped, consider the following. Like NCEAS, one of SESYNC’s goals is to promote interdisciplinary synthesis while also supporting synthesis research that is core to specific domains. Yes, the ultimate goal is to bridge epistemological divides so that ecologists, physical scientists, and social scientists work jointly on critical questions related to the tight coupling of humans and the environment BUT…there are domain groups (such as those I listed above) that are simply not yet ready for this. So, like Jim Reichman and the NCEAS board had to some 12-14 years ago, we at SESYNC are having to work hard to develop a culture of synthesis within communities who don’t even know what is meant by synthesis. And, we do not have only a small handful of communities we need to reach. We have dozens of potential communities. In fact, in terms of scholarly societies we are reaching out to, some include multiple sections and thousands of members – e.g., the American Psychological Association and American Sociological Association each have 4-6 relevant sections and thousands of members. Like NCEAS, we are relying heavily on our advisory board and people like you to help us.
    2. What ideas do you have for accelerating synthesis work with the social sciences we have historically not worked with?

    Because of NCEAS, ecologists are at an advanced stage in using the methods and tools of synthesis to address important questions. Does this mean there is no need for ecologists to contribute to the “Foundations of Socio-Environmental Synthesis Series”? I don’t think so.
    3. Can you identify ecological/environmental science areas that are under-developed with respect to synthesis? i.e., where we need to build capacity. Can you propose some specific needs and who the players might be?

    Does this mean that SESYNC will not have some interdisciplinary groups contributing to the “Foundations” series? I hope not. So, I ask you:
    4. What interdisciplinary socio-ecological topics are already ripe for synthesis and how can we best support efforts in those areas? My guess is many areas of economics (but not all!) are already collaborating with some of you or are ripe to do so. How might we accelerate new findings in this arena?

    Finally, I would note that NCEAS promoted major scholarly contributions via synthesis in some of the most fundamental aspects of ecology and environmental science. e.g.,

    • “Mechanisms of maintenance of biodiversity” (Easterling et al. 2000)
    • “Novel methods improve prediction of species’ distributions from occurrence data” (Elith et al. 2006),
    • “The metacommunity concept: a framework for multi-scale community ecology (Leibold et al. 2004)
    • “Extinction risk from climate change” (Thomas et al. 2004)

    But NCEAS participants have also linked management and fundamental ecology. While I can’t tell that any of the papers from this work are on the ‘top 100 cited’, they span a wide variety of topics such as marine protected areas, species management plans, climate change and forest pests, etc. SESYNC is taking this further since we are prioritizing funding Themes the community identifies that are actionable. i.e., the key questions that define the Theme should lead to results that are of interest or use to non-scientists, particularly policy makers, business leaders, and households. This does not mean we are only funding applied work or that every project within a Theme can be linked to an action. Instead the portfolio of projects within a Theme together should aim to provide actionable results.

    We have already received considerable input from the community to consider the following two Themes that we will be announcing soon:
    – Synthesis to illuminate the linkages between globalization and changes in natural resources at any scale*. Where, globalization here refers to increased economic and social interaction among peoples via trade, migration and employment, or via new forms of communication.
    – Synthesis to produce data, modeling and methods that will improve our capacity to observe ecosystem services**. To move the concept of ecosystem services to a quantitative science that can inform local, regional, and global assessments and projections of the link between human well-being and the environment.

    5. I would like to challenge this group to identify critical Themes from your perspectives – you are uniquely positioned to identify and lead such efforts which could be a joint collaboration between NCEAS and SESYNC.

    all the best, Margaret

  7. Are there any instances when we have done enough synthesis? Looking back, are there some instances where clear sets of benchmarks are evident that could guide us in future and forthcoming synthetic endeavors?

  8. Inter-disciplinary working groups have been alluded to primarily in the questions. TSA, engineers, etc. This is really amazing. Are these the anomalies of the 400 working groups or is this a common element across the groups?

  9. Historically speaking, do larger teams ask larger questions? I really enjoyed the discussion on the benefits of collaboration and the promotion of concrete research networks between people. Looking across working groups, were larger ones more effective at capturing broader scopes?

    • My experience was that working groups larger than ~12 people did not work very well. Beyond that size the dynamics becomes unwieldy and communication is not effective.

  10. We can all agree that the accomplishments of NCEAS are vast. Certainly there are many metrics by which these accomplishments have been recorded but these don’t completely depict the impact of NCEAS. In addition to the traditional products of paper, presentations, etc, we should acknowledge the impact that NCEAS has had on the careers of many of the participants. I know for myself that time I spent at NCEAS, both in sabbaticals and in working groups, was a turning point in my career – most of my research directions and collaborators can be traced back to their origins at NCEAS. The impact is perhaps the greatest on the top-notch postdocs that came through NCEAS and went on to lead successful roles as scientists. All of these types of impacts from NCEAS will be felt for many years into the future…

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