More than the sum of the parts: collaboration and synthesis in ecosystem science

Recently the Australian Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (ACEAS) has hosted Dr John Parker on a visit from Arizona State University. John studies the sociology of science, focusing on the social dimensions of scientific collaborations, scientific and intellectual social movements, emotion and creativity, scientific elites, scientific careers and scientific work life. With extensive experience with a range of synthesis centres around the world, including the National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in the USA, John’s insights on collaboration and synthesis initiatives are instructive and encouraging for the further development of TERN and its facilities, including ACEAS.

Synthesis centres such as ACEAS bring researchers, policy makers, and environmental managers together in working group environments to address critical issues and questions in ecosystem science. Using existing data available from a range of sources and covering broad time scales and spatial scales, these groups are able to throw their time and energy into analysis and synthesis. By applying expertise and perspectives from a range of fields, working groups ultimately produce creative outputs that incorporate diverse viewpoints. Synthesis centres are also involved in initiatives to enhance the capability for data storage and sharing. In the case of ACEAS, this is reflected through its connection to TERN and the TERN facilities involved in building data management infrastructure to support ecosystem science in Australia.

John’s research has revealed interesting patterns about collaboration and synthesis. One of the key findings is that face to face interaction is vital in building successful working groups. Face to face interaction, and particularly the intensity of interaction that occurs when working groups gather for short timespans ranging from a few days to a few weeks, is vital for building the trust necessary for people to work effectively with each other. As John illustrates: “Imagine exchanging emails with someone for months, or sitting down with them, looking at them, and talking for a while. There’s no comparison.”

Alongside face to face interaction, the inclusion of members from a diversity of disciplines and institutions enhances the productivity of working groups. Individuals with previous involvement in a working group also contribute to the success of a group, being able to facilitate and support important internal group processes.

In terms of outputs, working groups tend to produce high impact publications in leading journals. This draws attention to the work of ecosystem science at an international scale, and contributes to shaping the global scientific conversation on key issues. Particularly interesting is the observation that participation in synthesis working groups has a lasting positive impact on the careers of working group members. Following participation in working groups, researchers go on to produce more publications, more highly-cited publications, and tend to have more collaborations than prior to their working group experience.

In a large country like Australia, where researchers, policy makers, and environmental managers are dispersed across large distances, John sees the role of initiatives like ACEAS and TERN as especially important in establishing opportunities for people to network and connect across the country. ACEAS working groups provide opportunities for people to travel and connect with other members of the ecosystem science community; opportunities that many participants do not have outside of ACEAS due to the large distances and costs involved. Upon returning from working groups, people can share their expanded experience and knowledge of Australian ecosystem science community with their ‘home’ institutions. In this way, the working groups enhance the knowledge and networking capacity of more than just the direct participants involved.

When comparing ACEAS specifically with other synthesis centres globally, John notes that ACEAS shows a particular strength in including representatives not only from the research community, but also from Government agencies and on ground groups directly engaging in environmental management. In this way, ACEAS ensures that its work is relevant and applicable to ‘real world’ issues in ecosystem science and management.

Published in TERN e-Newsletter June 2012.

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