Thinking Across Disciplines to Drive Science and Policy

05/22/2015 03:31 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

Right after meeting with post-doctoral students to discuss river hydrology, Dr. Margaret Palmer welcomed me into her office to discuss science, communication and the work of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) in Annapolis, Maryland.

Founded in 2011, the National Science Foundation awarded funds to create SESYNC. It is the newest in a series of synthesis centers that coalesces research from a range of disciplines, especially the natural and social sciences.

Dr. Palmer has been at the forefront of such synthesis, not only as the Director of SESYNC, but also in her work as a scientist testifying in court on the impacts of mountain top removal coal mining. In many ways she embodies what SESYNC seeks to do, develop methods and approaches to reduce barriers across disciplines.

An early adopter of SESYNC's thinking is a team examining change in land use in Nicaragua. Dr. Seeta Sistla, a principal investigator of the project and based in UC Irvine, said the group is investigating how fish availability and declining fish stocks have affected a community's relationship with the land. Her team is addressing this question from many perspectives, which Dr. Sistla says, "are all linked into a larger project to see how the development of a road into this previously poorly connected area of Eastern Nicaragua has affected a resource use and management strategies."

Combining many disciplines, their project functions as a set of nested dolls. At the regional scale, researchers are questioning land use and conservation, and at the small scale, team members analyze agroforestry settings, soil characteristics, road development, and fishery health.

Dr. Sistla's team is comprised of researchers from disparate backgrounds, which some might think would cause tensions due to disciplinary misunderstandings, but is actually accelerating the group's work as they share expertise. This interdisciplinary approach is exactly what SESYNC is trying to encourage.

Dr. Jonathan Kramer leads the Interdisciplinary Science program at SESYNC, developing "the science of team science." When teams meet at SESYNC, they spend a few action-packed days working with Dr. Kramer to reconsider how research is done, how the problem can be conceptualized, what should be the target of research and what should be left out.

By dwelling on process questions, teams have time to define terms, delineate expected results, and minimize preconceived notions of their projects. Dr. Kramer challenges team members to speak in the same vocabulary regardless of their expertise or background. "Sometimes an outsider is needed to ask that unifying question," he says. Through this process, the group can better synthesize ideas and communicate their science to broad audiences.

SESYNC hopes that its method, like its scientific findings, impact policy and is picked up by other institutions to help researchers work across disciplines. That is the end game says Dr. Kramer, "the science must inform decision-making. To do so, we ask what non-scientists need, and how they ask questions differently." Only then can there be knowledge exchange.

As the center continues to bridge divides and help groups come together to solve complex socio-environmental issues, Dr. Kramer says, "we see what happens in teams and how it happens. We are getting better at catalyzing those moments and generating more actionable science to affect policy."

The challenges facing the environment are mounting and complex. The findings and experience emerging from SESYNC, will improve all disciplines ability to effectively meet today's environmental challenges head on.