There is never a bad time to think about the future, but the past year has certainly given us an inflection point for careful forward-looking consideration of many things. NCEAS has been looking to the future of synthesis and ecology, of course.
In February, NCEAS hosted – virtually – the Future of Synthesis in Ecology and Environmental Science Workshop, which brought together 125 synthesis-oriented researchers from around the world to think big about the pressing questions that synthesis should tackle in the next decade. It was originally planned to be in person and in 2020, in celebration of NCEAS’ 25th anniversary. As you might guess, the COVID pandemic forced the delay and the shift to virtual.
“We wanted to help the community think about where and how synthesis can play a role in the coming decade,” said NCEAS executive director Ben Halpern. “It was motivated by trying to continue our role of convening people and generating ‘convergent thinking’ about what the future can hold for synthesis.”
Convergent thinking is a term used by some in the scientific community to refer to the idea of bringing together diverse ideas, perspectives, and data in a transdisciplinary way to gain new insights – basically, what NCEAS does.
But a key theme that emerged from the workshop echoes a greater Zeitgeist of the United States today: the synthesis community has a need and an opportunity to reform its process of doing science to better cultivate the diversity and inclusion principle that is core to its ethos.
“It was clear this was a good moment to look back and say, let’s figure out how to make the next 20 years of synthesis more inclusive,” said Carl Boettiger, assistant professor at UC Berkeley and NCEAS science adviser, who was part of the workshop planning committee.
According to Boettiger, attendees realized that, while synthesis has always been about team science rather than individual science, which might make it seem “inclusive on the cover,” a closer look revealed that it didn’t mean all voices or data have been included equally.
“The process of forming teams can also be the process of excluding. Knowing who is being excluded and why, who gets credit, and so forth are only more crucial now than they were before,” said Boettiger.
Surprisingly, the workshop’s virtual format lent itself to this realization. Funding rules would have prevented NCEAS from supporting the travel of international researchers, so the move to virtual meant researchers from all over the world could participate – and participate they did, from South Africa, Canada, Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, despite the time zone challenges.
“It was clear that the international perspectives enriched the conversations and the ideas that were brought forth. It was really rewarding to feel the energy in the community responding in a positive way,” said Halpern.
A key takeaway for Sarah Hobbie, a professor at University of Minnesota who was also part of the planning committee, was that the kinds of questions ecologists are interested in pursuing with synthesis haven’t changed all that much over the years – for example, questions of scale were top of mind at the workshop and have been since NCEAS’ inception in the mid-1990s. What is changing, however, is the need to reevaluate how to conduct synthesis to ask and answer questions.
“[Our discussions] helped people realize that the goals for doing synthesis are different across the world, that the sources of data, the sources of knowledge are diverse across the world, across cultures,” said Hobbie.
Ecology and environmental science have always been realms for letting a thousand flowers bloom, and their questions are inherently oriented around trying to make science useful for solving the world’s problems. But more and more ecologists and environmental scientists are reckoning with the idea that traditional research processes may not be able to address the inequities of environmental problems without more inclusion.
“If we’re trying to answer societal problems, we can do a lot better job of working with those communities that management and policy decisions affect more directly,” said Jessica Gephart, assistant professor at American University and another member of the workshop planning team.
Gephart’s research straddles ecology, human dimensions, and economics. She has been especially encouraged by the increased interest in including social scientists and vulnerable communities in efforts to answer applied and human-oriented questions, but thinks there is still more work to be done.
“It’s still hard to work across some of the barriers that we’ve built for ourselves around these disciplines. I’d like to see the academic community and structures embrace this idea more,” said Gephart, adding that synthesis centers like NCEAS play an important role in providing opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Increasing diversity and inclusion in synthesis won’t be just a matter of the people around the table, it will also about the data included in the process.
“Data comes from different backgrounds with different stories, and some of it is much more easily digitized, and some of it is much harder to mobilize and gets left out. Often the data that gets left out is coming from communities whose voices get left out,” said Boettiger.
An example grappled with at the workshop was the question of how to synthesize traditional ecological knowledge from indigenous communities with data and knowledge derived from western science.
Boettiger notes that data exclusions have not just social and cultural costs, but also scientific costs, leaving holes in data and undermining the principle of representativeness. With the rise of applying machine learning to ecology, he says there is no better time than now to address data diversity problems.
“We are overwhelmed by sensor data and satellite data and all of these other sources that make it practical to do machine learning methods. Lots of fields go astray by not addressing issues of ethics and inclusivity in the design [of studies] and the biases that show up in the data,” said Boettiger.
“Given that we know there are biases in the way that data are collected and the way questions are asked, having diverse perspectives can help us see where the blind spots are, as to who is not being counted and where is not being counted in the large-scale studies that are central to synthesis projects,” said Gephart.
Hobbie thinks the momentum around increasing diversity and inclusion in science generally, as well as the workshop’s illustration of the value of including diverse voices, also underscores an opportunity to reexamine funding structures and the limits they might be placing on the ability to do science in an inclusive way.
And despite the disappointment she and many other workshop participants felt about the loss of more personal connections and informal conversations as a result of not meeting in person, Hobbie thinks what has been learned about how to work in a virtual world could make synthesis better poised to bring together more diverse voices moving forward.
“After COVID, everyone is going to want to get together again in person, and there are certainly reasons to do that. But at the same time, I think it’s important that we think about how that prevents us from being more inclusive, and how can we learn from COVID and find ways to be more inclusive in our synthesis activities in the future,” she said.