A short reflection of the first 10 years of sDiv - Impact needs time

Dear colleagues,

Basically, on this exact day when you find this newsletter in your inbox, I started my job as head of sDiv 10 years ago and so sDiv started to operate. 2022 is the 10th year of iDiv’s and thus sDiv’s existence. Looking back on these 10 extremely exciting but also demanding years, some activities nowadays become “business as usual” (e.g. coordinating the 17th call with sDiv involvement - see & please circulate the advertisement of our open call and/or apply!). Other activities are still new, while we are constantly working on improving our services. For example, we are still trying to find the best ways to support synthesis projects and colleagues that focus on topics relevant to underrepresented research regions (see open call on this) while being relevant and appealing to iDiv’s researcher community. Not easy, given limited resources and necessary guiding principles from our side (e.g. meaningful CO2 footprint vs necessary internationality) and the huge variety of proposed topics. Another completely new task for us here, which will keep me busy in the next years, is the strategy and actual work of attracting future external funders for sDiv.

One of the results of these last 10 demanding years, and of >155 working group meetings with >2200 participants, 40 synthesis postdocs and >20 sabbatical visitors, is the first sDiv supported publication to gain more than 1000 citations (Isbell et al. 2015). It’s an sDiv working group publication (sTability) co-led by former sDiv postdoc Dylan Craven (now associate professor at University Mayor in Santiago de Chile). Congratulations! We will see the 300th sDiv core publication (incl. several large data sets, R packages, shiny apps etc) very soon too (see sDiv’s google scholar page) as well as the 30.000th citation for these products. A huge achievement!

But it’s not only the impact on research and its community, we are beginning to see. Some sDiv supported projects and initiatives have already had a significant impact on global or regional politic or management decisions. One example is the now adapted IUCN scheme of the impact assessment of alien species (EICAT) which started to be developed by sImpact (see our 2020 newsletter for more details). Another example is the successful integration of soils into global conservation agendas, also initiated through sDiv supported discussions in sOILDIV and sWORM. At the national level, sMon, initially supported by sDiv, focusing on biodiversity trends in Germany, co-authored a white paper which supported the establishment of the newly founded National Centre for Monitoring of Biodiversity, a unit of the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation here in Germany.

All in all, we are beginning to see significant research and policy impacts of science supported by sDiv. The global research community has clearly taken up on sDiv research. But seeing these impacts take time, which is potentially the most important “insight” to be told (and of course not at all a new one). We are extremely grateful for all the work iDiv and the global research community have put into these projects and outcomes. Of course, it would have never ever been possible without the German Research Foundation funding and support for iDiv, the research centre, sDiv is part of. Many thanks to all involved colleagues out there!!! I am personally extremely proud what sDiv has achieved. And it can’t be said often enough, just frankly nothing would be possible without the dedicated administrative support here at iDiv, thank you so much! I’m so grateful having my colleagues around here.

I’m looking forward to the next 10 years, hopefully welcoming many of you (again) at sDiv and iDiv.

Stay healthy & Cheers

sM(arten Winter, head of sDiv)

Adriana Alzate

Behind the scenes of “Understanding the relationship between dispersal and range size” - an sDiv Postdoc paper as result of a two year synthesis project

by Adriana Alzate (former sDiv postdoc, now at Wageningen University)

This journey began two years ago in 2020, when we were stuck at home in the middle of a global pandemic. Some of us were left with too much time to think (or procrastinate) on the possible 1000 research questions for our next decade. I was at that time writing a proposal to apply for the sDiv individual postdoc grant and waking up at 5am every morning to get some work done before our daughter woke up and found herself in the current tedious world.

My sDiv proposal idea was about synthesizing dispersal and its multiple effects on macroecological and macroevolutionary patterns. For instance, the geographical range of a species, a fundamental unit in macroecology and the main predictor of extinction risk, is expected to be positively associated with dispersal. High dispersal ability enables range expansion by promoting colonization of new habitats, providing genetic and demographic rescue, promoting local adaptation, and reducing extinction risk. Therefore, differences in dispersal ability should lead to differences in range sizes between organisms. During my PhD, using correlational studies and spatially explicit neutral models, I showed that dispersal positively affects range sizes of reef fishes. However, the theoretical expectation of a positive relationship between range size and dispersal ability has received mixed empirical support both within and among taxa. I questioned then why if dispersal is such an obvious process affecting range expansion and range size, it was such a tricky thing to prove.

As you might know, reviews and meta-analyses became very popular during pandemic times. They require no fieldwork and can be done from your quarantine quarters. If you have a computer, an internet connection and access to bibliographic databases and articles, you are good to go. Quite timely, with the successful acceptance of my sDiv postdoc proposal, there was the announcement of the E4 award open competition of Ecography for review manuscripts contributions. I thought (naively) that maybe we can easily and quickly write a review to solve once and for all the enigma whether dispersal has an effect on species range sizes. Renske Onstein, my main supervisor and collaborator at iDiv (now @Naturalis in Leiden, Netherlands), who almost always supports my crazy ideas, was also up for the challenge. We proposed to investigate why and under which scenarios studies find positive, none or negative dispersal-range size relationships. For this, we have systematically collated more than 100 scientific articles that studied this question across distinct taxa (invertebrates, plants, mammals, fish, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles).

Our proposal was accepted, but soon we realized that this commitment was more difficult and would take more time than originally anticipated. We then decided to explore other possibilities and asked iDiv’s synthesis professor Jonathan Chase whether this could be something for Ecology Letters (he is synthesis editor for the journal). In a very professional manner, he said that it was possible, but that the whole process would have to go through the then editor-in-chief, Tim Coulson, first. Luckily, he also thought that our idea had merit. We thought that we could get away with a vote-counting type of review, but that was far from what happened and after a quick immediate rejection from Coulson, he sent us straight to do a proper meta-analysis. And that is how it started our journey on meta-analytical research: a new world. I went asking around to people who had experience on this. In the iDiv consortium I had and still have fortunately several meta-analysis experienced colleagues, and asked Roel van Klink, Becks Spake and Stephan Kambach. I followed some lectures from Julia Koricheva and did lots of self-reading (like Koricheva’s book and the metafor’ tutorials from W. Viechtbauer).

I remember that my sDiv colleagues were skeptical about making sense of such a mess. To start with, all studies measured range size and dispersal differently. After almost two years and a lot of work our study has now been published in Ecology Letters and even the cover picture of the issue was featuring our study (Fig. 1). In summary, the majority of studies reported neutral dispersal-range size relationships, followed by a large proportion of studies reporting positive relationships and very few reporting negative relationships. These mixed outcomes were common to all type of organisms studied. However, when doing a meta-analysis (when you actually focus on effect sizes and not on p-values that are very much dependent on statistical power and sample sizes), we found that dispersal actually has a positive effect on range size. Furthermore, one key finding was that the relationship between dispersal and range size strongly depends on which traits you decide to use as proxy of dispersal. For instance, Hand-wing index has a stronger positive effect on bird range sizes than body size or relative muscle mass was a very poor proxy for dispersal in insects. Having big muscle might make you look strong, but that does not help you when running a marathon or when expanding your range, as muscles are costly. Another interesting finding was that the effect of dispersal on range size was stronger when studying groups of species that are not too similar (e.g., genus level) or not too different (e.g., phylum, division, kingdom level). This was particularly happening for plants and it struck me that scientists studying animals usually study birds or insects or fish or mammals, a taxonomic group at the Class level, whereas scientist studying plants… well they study plants. We really should become more knowledgeable about plants.

Now you might think I solved all my questions. Far from reality and other questions emerged from this research to keep me busy at least for the next quinquennium.

Alzate, Adriana, Onstein, Renske E. (2022): Understanding the relationship between dispersal and range size. Ecology Letters, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.14089

News from synthesis centres

New synthesis research initiatives with new funding opportunities - A short update on the global community of natural science focused synthesis centres

I have reported a few times on the existing informal international synthesis consortium, a group of like-minded colleagues and the synthesis centres/initiatives they lead with focus on natural sciences. There are a few updates I want to mention here also on behalf of my dear fellow centre colleagues, a group I really enjoy interacting with. See below some descriptions about the status, missions and activities of several newly established initiatives. Exciting times with new funding opportunities for collaborative synthesis research.



The Brazilian Synthesis Center on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – SinBiose, approaches the final phase of its first funded projects. SinBiose, coordinated by Marisa Mamede, is a research program from the Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq). Its mission is “to produce international-level data and concepts´ synthesis with emphasis on current issues related to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The center must act as a science-policy broker, helping in the development of scenarios, strategies and solutions. It must also help identifying knowledge gaps and emerging environmental problems". SinBiose prepares to launch a new call for projects in the second half of 2023.

So far, seven working groups were funded three years ago. Project topics are: ecological integrity of secondary forests in the Amazon (REGENERA), drivers of degradation of the Amazon biodiversity (SYNERGIZE), pollination intensification for sustainable agriculture (SPIN), Brazilian reef communities management and conservation (ReefSyn), Brazilian grasslands biodiversity and restoration (GrassSyn), modelling tropical neglected diseases outbreak risks in the Amazon (Redes DTN) and techno-productive trajectories relating to public health as an ecosystem service in the Amazon (TRAJETORIAS). A final meeting with the presentation of results is being planned for May 2023.



There is a very recently established synthesis centre in Copenhagen, AquaSYNC, managed by Jesper Andersen. It is a partnership consisting of Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA), Department of Ecoscience at Aarhus University /ECOS-AU) and the Swedish Institute for the Marine Environment (SIME-GU). AquaSYNC is hosted by NIVA Denmark and located in Copenhagen.

The primary goal of AquaSYNC is to foster state-of-the-art aquatic synthesis research in a data-rich but information-poor world. Their research focus is on streams and rivers, lakes and ponds and on coastal and marine water. An open call for establishment of two new synthesis working groups will be launched late 2022 / early 2023.

AquaSYNC employs four key instruments: (1) Meetings of Synthesis Working Groups, comprised of both external participant and core AquaSYNC staff, (2) synthesis projects led by AquaSYNC core staff or Postdocs, (3) integrated assessment activities, including development of innovative multi-metric indicator-based assessment tools, led by AquaSYNC core staff, and (4) hosting visiting scientists for short and long periods. In addition to AquaSYNC’s core activities, other activities and outputs may include systematic reviews, seminars and training courses and an international symposium on synthesis research in aquatic ecosystems is planned (September 2025).



Another very recent initiative is the Institute for Global Change Biology (IGCB) at the University of Michigan, directed by Peter Reich. The goal of the IGCB is to improve our ability to predict and prevent the tragic outcomes of global change. IGCB will host working groups that specifically focus on global change biology to address unmet questions. IGCB is developing funding streams in partnership with existing Synthesis Centers as part of building a broader community network of scientists across the nation and globe, including accelerating the training and mentorship of early career scientists.

IGCB funds already seven working groups and has an open call right now. IGCB Working Groups will be awarded one or two 2-3-year Postdoctoral Fellow positions to facilitate work at the University of Michigan across three or more lead PIs.

The newly established Environmental Data Science Innovation & Inclusion Lab (ESIIL), directed by Jennifer Balch,is led by the University of Colorado Boulder in collaboration with NSF’s CyVerse at the University of Arizona and the University of Oslo. It is the outcome of the latest NSF call for a new synthesis centre initiative, focusing on data driven science and just started in summer 2022. ESIIL’s research community envision to generate discoveries and novel approaches through: 1) cutting-edge team science, 2) innovative tools and collaborative cyberinfrastructure, 3) data science education and training, and 4) building inclusive participation and diverse groups.


sEnigmas: Insights from an sDiv Early-Career Researcher Working Group - Identifying the common mechanisms behind enigmas of biodiversity

Biodiversity is the outcome of complex processes that interact across spatial and temporal scales. In large part because of historical contingency rather than out of necessity, scientific disciplines dedicated to studying biodiversity tend to emphasize some processes over others, or tend to focus on one scale of organization while treating as inconsequential processes at higher or lower scales. The sEnigmas ECR working group arose out of a conversation between three of us with domain expertise in community ecology, population genetics, and macroevolution. We noticed that within each of our sub-disciplines there remain unexplained and even enigmatic patterns: the species-genetic diversity correlation (Vellend, 2005), Lewontin's paradox (Buffalo, 2021; Lewontin, 1974), and the diversification-genetic diversity correlation (Silva et al, in prep), respectively. Our curiosity was sparked by the feeling of apparent symmetry among these enigmas (i.e. the central importance of genetic diversity), and by the realization that they must all be facets of one grand overarching pattern which we are simply failing to ascertain with our current, limited tools.

In service of continuing this investigation we pitched our idea for "sEnigmas", which was graciously funded by sDiv as part of its first round ever of Early-Career Researcher Working Groups. The Early-Career Researcher Working Group structure had several clear benefits for our group. First, it facilitated free and equal participation of all members in plenary sessions. We discussed how conversing with a group of peers allowed people to 'speak up' without hesitating or self-censoring in a way that might be more common if an ECR were in a much larger group of senior scientists. sDiv came up with few rules for ECR groups which they hoped will help ECR colleagues successfully lead working groups. The maximum size is eight (+ two/three additional iDiv researchers if wanted and funded), so a rather small team which is easier to manage. Only two senior colleagues with no past & ongoing supervision relationships with any of the initial eight participants. This was meant to minimize potential domination of senior colleagues or potential conflicts because of power relationships.

Related to this, we found that this freedom in being among a peer group allowed us to brainstorm very effectively. This was particularly important when bringing together experts from diverse fields, because we are all only experts within our own individual domains. This free expression and a license to ask seemingly naive questions outside one's own discipline promoted bubbling activity and radical brainstorming sessions. A third benefit of this working group structure was providing space for ECR participants to take leadership roles and develop skills in facilitating group dynamics, which they otherwise might not have done in the presence of more senior researchers. When everyone is invested in participating and feels a sense of ownership for the process it generates an incredible amount of buy-in, which builds trust among group members and strengthens group cohesion.

Our approach involved bringing together theoreticians, modelers, and empirical biologists with specific expertise within the focal sub-domains, and with demonstrated interest in synthesizing across disciplinary boundaries and/or across scales of organization. The proximal goals of our working group are: 1) to develop a coherent synthesis bridging community ecology, population genetics, and macroevolution; and 2) to develop a process-based mechanistic model as a crystallization of this synthesis. The ultimate goal of our group is to understand the enigmas of biodiversity within a single unifying framework - to see each of them as facets of a greater whole, and to begin to apprehend this whole itself.

Establishing a common language linking concepts across scales and disciplines was tricky because it wasn't immediately clear that it even was a challenge until the first meeting was already underway. As an example, each member of the group from different sub-fields focused on slightly different expressions of genetic diversity, which only became clear to us some time during the second day of our first meeting. This was a wonderful teachable moment for ourselves which required us to wind back our conversation and identify the fuzzy boundaries between our lexicons.

Given that several of our group members have participated in previous 'full' working groups, it seems opportune to reflect a bit further on the benefits and challenges of the ECR versus full working group structures. One notable difference between these two structures is the group size, with ECR groups being significantly smaller. The small size of our current group (eight core members and three iDiv postdocs) promotes both focus and agility - in other words, it's easy to make decisions and to stay on task. Full working groups can be substantially larger, which can (in our experience) occasionally result in the vision and scope of projects expanding to an unmanageable level, and which can additionally result in decision-making overhead. On the other hand, the ECR exuberance and cognitive flexibility may not entirely counterbalance the (necessary) limitation in depth of early-career experience and domain knowledge. A final challenge of the ECR format, which is less critical for full working groups, is the inherent instability of ECR employment status. Several of our members have changed jobs over the course of this working group, and the majority of us have uncertain futures with respect to permanent stable positions in academia, which is a challenge in terms of maintaining continuity of participation. To be clear, sDiv has been exceedingly supportive in accommodating the needs of our group members generated by this shifting landscape of employment status.

Overall, our first two meetings were very productive, stimulating, and exciting. We are currently working on a draft manuscript to describe our cross-disciplinary synthesis, with a focus on intraspecific genetic diversity and its central role in linking processes across spatial and temporal scales. We hope to complete the draft of our theoretical synthesis in time for a potential third meeting during which we will operationalize our model within a process-based mechanistic framework, inspired by a unification of previous work of sEnigmas participants (e.g. Hagen, O. et al. 2021; Overcast, I. et al. 2021). Within the synthesis paper and the modeling framework we hope to ignite a new line of inquiry for holistically understanding biodiversity, and to reflect not only the challenges but also the vibrant discussions we have undertaken within this sDiv ECR working group.



Accelerating IUCN Red List assessments for rapid and effective biodiversity monitoring

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species (hereafter “Red List”) plays a crucial role in biodiversity conservation. However, years of insufficient resourcing has challenged Red List assessors’ ability to expand the number of species included in the Red List, while updating old assessments and making assessments more robust and coherent among groups. To address these challenges, modelling methods have been developed by researchers for two decades with the goal to support, fast-track, and standardise Red List assessments, but their uptake in the Red List has been very limited. The sRedList working group brings together Red List practitioners and ecological modellers to address these challenges; it is coordinated by Luca Santini and Moreno Di Marco and was granted with a postdoc position, occupied by Victor Cazalis. The working group has been very dynamic, with strong commitment from both modeller and practitioner sides, which ensured strong applicability to our research projects. Moreover, the fact that a postdoc position was funded enabled to make much more rapid progresses and to facilitate the communication within the working group and with external partners! We are all very enthusiastic about this inspiring working group and we feel very lucky for this opportunity to gather such a large and diverse group of people, along with the opportunity to hire a postdoc to push projects forward.

The first objective of our working group was to synthesise the published modelling approaches to predict Red List categories. This led to a review where we described and compared the goals and approaches of 98 studies (Cazalis et al. 2022, TREE). Thanks to extensive discussions between academics and Red List stakeholders that are part of the working group, we were able to explore in the paper the reasons why these studies had very little uptake in the Red List and to detail the communication gap between academics and the Red List community. We further suggested how this could be bridged as well as several research avenues to effectively support Red List assessments.

The second objective was to fill scientific gaps that we identified in our review, through four analytical projects that are currently ongoing. Etienne Henry, a Master student hosted by iDiv for six months is developing a comparative extinction risk modelling approach that provides more useful outputs to Red List assessors. Giordano Mancini, a PhD student in Sapienza University in Rome (supervised by Moreno and Luca), develops a standard measure of species exposure to climate change in order to inform Red List criteria on future population trends. He is currently visiting iDiv for six months to collaborate with Victor. The third project, led by Victor, consists in estimating the likelihood of species currently listed as Data Deficient to have sufficient data for Red List assessments. Such algorithm aims to prioritize reassessment of species most likely of being listed in a data sufficient category.

The third objective is the most important one in terms of expected practical outcomes, aiming to effectively bridge the gap between academics and the Red List community. In our initial synthesis paper, we showed that a main limitation of academics’ attempts to support Red List assessments was that the methods developed were not accessible to assessors. To address this, the working group decided to develop an online platform where Red List assessors could easily apply relevant analyses. This includes some functionalities to fast-track some assessment steps (e.g., automated creation of species range map) and others that provide assessors with key data to inform their reassessments (e.g., calculating trends in species’ Area of Habitat). The overall philosophy of the platform is to provide easy-access to complex analyses, but offering many interactive options to assessors to best meet their specific needs (e.g., selecting habitat preferences before mapping the Area of Habitat of a species). All outputs of the platform (e.g., maps, parameters, species information) are provided in a format that can be directly submitted in a Red List assessment.

The sRedList platform is currently being developed by joint efforts of the working group, and our partner LifeWatch Italy that helps us developing the web infrastructure and is hosting the platform on their server. We expect the first version to be released in March 2023 and that it will ease the voluntary work of Red List assessors across taxonomic groups (from Fungi and invertebrates to mammals). After the first release we will keep adding functionalities to the platform and adapt it based on users’ feedback to ensure maximum uptake. sDiv is planning to keep supporting this new phase of the sRedList platform life, which will focus on technical development rather than academic research, by granting a third year to the working group and contracting Victor as an external developer to manage and further develop the platform (to be confirmed). Additionally, we are now trying to secure further funding to ensure the platform will be viable on a longer term and as an adaptable tool for the Red List community.

Recent call outcomes & new calls

11th sDiv Call for Early Career Researcher Working Groups (ECR) and Modular Synthesis Projects (SynFlex)

Pre proposal deadline: 16 Dec 2022, Full proposal deadline: 19 April 2023

This call is for projects starting in 2024. Funding cannot be guaranteed after September 2024. This is subject to the approval of iDiv funding beyond the DFG funding.


  • All topics and questions related to biodiversity synthesis (incl. social sciences etc) are welcome.
  • Funding is available for working groups lead by Early Career Researchers (ECR call) & Synthesis Projects being allowed to use other approaches than working groups (SynFlex)
  • With this call, we would again like to encourage proposals that engage genuinely with topics and researchers from underrepresented regions (see  list here)
  • PLEASE NOTE: No Phd student or postdoc salaries are funded in this call
  • Each proposal needs to involve at least one iDiv member (full & associated members are eligible). Candidates are encouraged to be pro-active in communicating with suitable project partners (assistance by the sDiv head Marten Winter if needed).

How to apply?

* Registration is required to create your application. It is possible to safe and change data at any time until the final submission. Please contact sDiv for assistance.

10th Call - Five projects funded

Following our 10th Call, sDiv has received 13 pre-proposals for early career working groups and 16 pre-proposals for SynFlex projects. Four applicants for early career working groups as well as six applicants for SynFlex projects received a positive evaluation of their pre-proposal and were invited to submit a full proposal.

After intensive discussions of the internal and external reviews of proposals of very high scientific quality, the sDiv Evaluation Board has decided to support one early career working groups, four SynFlex projects. One ECR Project was invited for a proposal revision - the decision will be made mid of November 2022.

Congratulations to our new sDiv working groups and future sDiv collaborators!

Funded early career working groups

sMoste –Motifs supporting STability of Ecosystem services
main PIs:
Kate Wootton, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA
Anshuman Swain, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

Funded SynFlex projects

sGUBIK –Synthesizing Global Urban Biological Invasion Knowledge (sGUBIK): Patterns, Mechanisms, and Applications
main PIs:
Luke Potgieter, University of Toronto Scarborough, Scarborough, Canada
Daijiang Li, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA

sUnderfoot –Functional diversity of belowground plant strategies in a rapidly changing world
main PIs:
Joana Bergmann, Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF), Müncheberg, Germany
Alessandra Fidelis, Universidade Estadual Paulista, São Paulo, Brasil

sCaleGrassDiv –Do the mechanisms of land-use effects on grassland plant diversity depend on spatial scales and environmental contexts?
main PIs:
Anna Kuzemko, Institute of Botany NAS Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine
Oksana Buzhdygan, Theoretical Ecology Group, Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

sELOdiv –sELOdiv: Synthesising Ecosystem and Land cover Observations and biodiversity change after abandonment and depopulation
main PIs:
Gergana Daskalova, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Austria
Sylvia Dyulgerova, Institute of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Bulgaria

Open call for sabbaticals

Pre proposal deadline: 25 Jan 2023, Full proposal deadline: 5 April 2023

This call is for projects starting in 2024. Funding cannot be guaranteed after September 2024. This is subject to the approval of iDiv funding beyond the DFG funding.

    For Sabbatical projects running until September 2024.
How to apply?
    via the iDiv application portal* as PDF file using the provided templates
•    Final decisions will be announced in May 2023


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