Is synthesis still successful and needed?

In the last year we in sDiv and our home centre iDiv went through many strategic discussions and revisions of our scientific mission and goals. We will enter a completely new funding phase from October 2024 onwards and wanted to revise our underlying aims and goals. This is an ongoing process of redefining what iDiv and with it sDiv, plans to do in future. Inspiring but also not easy after 10 years establishing a very successful centre. We will move from a 12 year period of generous 3rd party funding from our German Research Foundation (DFG) to direct and indirect funding from our hosting Federal states (Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt & Thuringia) and three universities (Martin-Luther University in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Leipzig University in Saxony and Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Thuringia) as well as  continued funding from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ. 

I want to start (well, we’re half way in already, so not really a start) this year's sDiv newsletter editorial with parts of the mentioned newly revised and sharpened sDiv mission statements.

“sDiv, iDiv’s synthesis centre, provides global leadership on synthesizing knowledge of biodiversity change, its underlying processes and consequences for the functioning of ecosystems. We want to understand the complexity of ecological processes and to design effective actions to protect and sustain our natural world. We accomplish synthesis through a diversity of research activities.

We currently support and envision maintaining (1) working groups, in which diverse groups of scientists come together to pool their knowledge and skills and to produce synthetic results and understanding, regularly supported by (2) synthesis postdocs, which are the best dedicated young researchers from around the world, and (3) more flexible synthesis projects allowing a combination of personnel and meeting approaches.”
[See for more insight in (1) an insight story on how diversity and comfort zones play a role; and for (3) an insight here.]

The revised mission statement perfectly describes the work and focus of sDiv in the last few years and our plans for the next few years. For example, in the last three calls  we successfully focussed on supporting research relevant for and researchers from research-wise underrepresented regions. Under this regional focus we funded 13 flexible synthesis projects and two postdocs, adding researchers from seven research-wise underrepresented countries to our participant network. We also supported early career researchers (ECR) in different ways. We have a synthesis postdoc program and we support ECR working groups. With these working groups we provide an opportunity for ECRs to lead collaborative projects in a setting of smaller teams not dominated by senior researchers. Since the implementation of that program, we funded eight working group projects, led and mainly driven by early career researchers. 

And now coming to the initial question: Is synthesis successful and still needed? I obviously have a strong COI here but that’s ok I guess, because it’s my section to tell you about my personal opinions and thoughts. And yes, we still do need synthesis. Even 28 years after NCEAS was established as the first synthesis centre of its kind, this research approach is needed. The ongoing demand of the research community (visible via the continuing number of proposals not only in sDiv) and also recent developments in other places of the world to open new synthesis research infrastructures (e.g. South Africa) show the success and necessity for synthesis. Our mission text says: “Why synthesis? Synthesis research is still a highly needed research approach (next to many others at iDiv) with the wealth of newly generated data, shifting in the last decade from purely scientific observations and measures to data, generated by even more heterogeneous sources (e.g. citizen science, historic data mobilized by AI, social media, multi-language text & data analyses etc). The ongoing internationalization of the global research community and iDivs efforts offer more opportunities to also support more strongly emerging synthesis efforts, researchers and research questions highly relevant for underrepresented regions. “ 

I hope it convincingly justifies in a brief way the complex knowledge and information universe we need to use to help answer important research questions. More than ever the global research community has to mobilize old and new knowledge and work together to solve some of the grand challenges of humanity. Synthesis will be one of many helpful approaches in this critical era of our planet. 

To support such collaborative team science, projects need to be diverse in many dimensions (incl. research backgrounds, gender, career status, expertise, data etc). And what not only the last Covid years have taught me and many of us is that nothing replaces the interaction depth and creativity created in in-person meetings (see more on it here). We will continue to support international team meetings here at sDiv, being embedded in our now exactly 3 year old great iDiv building. However, this approach creates significant challenges to our activities towards a more sustainable life. For the first time we were allowed to use project funding to compensate the CO2 footprint sDiv creates. We compensated 283 tons of CO2 created by sDiv guests and project participants with their travel to and from iDiv in 2022. Although this can be criticized as selling indulgences, it’s the best way to keep a highly necessary diversity in our synthesis projects as well as compensating a bit of our footprint. We plan to further compensate our CO2 footprint as best as possible in the upcoming years too.

Have a great rest of the year,
cheers from sunny Leipzig

sM(arten Winter, head of sDiv)

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