Posted by: Jeremy Fox | March 23, 2012

Is the time right for NCEAS 2.0?

Apparently there was much talk at the closing NCEAS symposium about “NCEAS 2.0”–a successor institute and what it might look like.  This is a really interesting conversation from which I’m far removed (I never had any involvement with NCEAS), so this post is basically me putting my hand up from the back row of the audience and asking questions of folks in a position to answer.

I find it interesting that no one at the NCEAS closing symposium seems to have suggested “there are already a bunch of NCEAS 2.0’s: NESCent, NIMBioS, CIEE, SESYNC…” I’m curious for folks who were there, or who know more about it than me, to chime in here. What’s the need for a successor to NCEAS that’s not being filled by all the various institutes (in ecology and related disciplines) inspired by NCEAS? In asking that question, I don’t mean to imply that I think the answer is “there is no need for NCEAS 2.0”; it’s a genuine question, not a rhetorical one.

I also find it interesting that visions for NCEAS 2.0 seem to vary rather widely, and that they often seem quite removed from NCEAS 1.0. For instance, Peter Kareiva apparently suggested some sort of institute that would reach out to big corporations and provide a neutral space in which corporations and ecologists could talk about pressing environmental issues (apologies if I’ve garbled what Peter said; I wasn’t there). Which sounds awfully far from NCEAS 1.0, which was basically “host a critical mass of postdocs and working groups doing whatever ‘synthetic’ ecology they propose to do” . Again, I have no answers here, just the question.

I’m also wondering if there was any discussion at the closing symposium of the extent to which NCEAS’s success was a product of good timing. Founding a center dedicated to synthesizing existing data and promoting collaborative work was a brilliant choice in the mid-1990s, when the internet and other computing advances had just gotten to the point of making data synthesis and collaborative work much easier. Had NCEAS been founded 10 years earlier, it would’ve been much less successful. So my question is, is the timing right for NCEAS 2.0? Are there any big new opportunities out there that, if we take advantage of them in the right way, will fundamentally change and improve how we do ecology? I don’t know that there are. The time is not always ripe for big advances or sea changes in how we do science. Perhaps sometimes the best we can do is just keep on keepin’ on with what we’ve been doing. But it’s a really hard question to answer, and honestly I have no idea what the answer is. I just think it’s a question we ought to ask. NCEAS’s success was partially due to being in the right place; everyone wants an excuse to go to somewhere with nice weather, beaches, and restaurants like Santa Barbera. I think we need to ask how much NCEAS’s success was also due to being in the right time. Maybe the only way to find out is to take the risk of founding a new center and see if it succeeds (which is kind of what NSF has already done by letting NCEAS wind down and founding SESYNC).



  1. Yes. Yes it is. None of those institutes you mentioned cover the same ground as NCEAS. And while a number of ideas were proffered during the TREAS symposium, they all centered on emergent strengths of NCEAS – many of which had not been realized at the time of the initial proposal. We have learned much, and the formulation of NCEAS 2.0 needs to take this into account. But, I’ll go out on a limb and say that to deprive the field of a dedicated center for Synthesis Ecology, with all that it entails, would indeed be a real tragedy for Ecology. To not use this moment in the center’s history to not do some hard introspection and reshape the place using the hard-won lessons learned would similarly would be to miss an opportunity.

    Indeed, we have a unique opportunity here – a forced liminal space, if you will – to re-imagine how NCEAS works. Let’s take it as the good opportunity that we can and move forward.

  2. Q: Is the time right for NCEAS 2.0?

    A: Well, I think the time is certainly right for reflecting about NCEAS 1.0– trying to identify what features led to its successes, as well as ponder what processes or entities might assist ecological synthesis in the future. The 130+ dedicated ecologists who participated in this symposium all generously shared their insights into the capabilities of NCEAS- both positive and negative- based on direct experience. There emerged, in my opinion, a broad consensus that many of the services that NCEAS 1.0 provided (and continues to provide) are still valuable for facilitating ecological synthesis. Although, as you point out, with technological advances as well as cultural shifts in attitudes towards data-sharing and integrative ecological science over the past decade+, the landscape has shifted. I’d assert that these shifts, *minimally*, were accelerated by the existence of NCEAS 1.0. I think most of the symposium participants would agree, although these are opinions, and thus subjective (although with a pretty large sample size!) Studies by Hackett, Parker, Hampton, Rhoten and others have studied the “NCEAS phenomenon” from a more quantitative social science perspective, and you might want to google them for interesting readings in the sociology of scientific collaboration. Regardless, there was a fair bit of discussion at this symposium about the implications of changes in culture and technology relative to the future of synthesis in ecology.

    Note that an “NCEAS 2.0” wouldn’t necessarily be in Santa Barbara–though SB is indeed a congenial environment for a number of reasons as you mention, and there is some substantial infrastructure already in place here (NCEAS 1.0) that could maintain and grow relevant services at much lower cost than starting afresh. Nor would some future incarnation necessarily carry the same identifier of “national” (some suggested “international” as more appropriate scoping for next-gen eco-synthesis). Still, the union of “ecology”, “analysis”, and “synthesis” remained the motivating topic, with some additional examination of how at NCEAS 1.0, investigations into conservation practices, science communications, and human well-being (disease, ecosystems services), among others, yielded highly significant scientific insights via the NCEAS’ working group model.

    You say: “I find it interesting that no one at the NCEAS closing symposium seems to have suggested “there are already a bunch of NCEAS 2.0′s: NESCent, NIMBioS, CIEE, SESYNC…”

    That is because these other centers are definitely not NCEAS 2.0’s, although one could argue that they are “2.0’s”. Their creation was certainly facilitated by early successes at NCEAS, and they borrowed generously from the NCEAS model. Still, NESCent is evo, and NIMBioS is math bio. I don’t know much about CIEE but it appears focused solely or mainly on Canadian issues. (the “N” in NCEAS definitely doesn’t refer to geospatial scoping of our topics!). SeSynC is just starting up and in some ways is thematically related to NCEAS, but SeSynC specifically integrates a “socio” context into its planned investigations, as well as an emphasis on “actionable science”. Both laudable and exciting goals…but not an NCEAS 2.0 (nor an NCEAS 1.0++ for that matter).

    Finally, you question whether NCEAS was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time? For sure, I think it was (and is). But that’s not all that was necessary– those were preconditions. As someone who has worked at NCEAS from the first day it opened its doors, I can tell you– in years 1-2, (1996-1997) there was much scepticism among our visitors whether NCEAS would work at all. Only using existing data? “Bah”. Many felt that old data were intellectually depleted– “several pubs already produced; nothing much more of interest in those old spreadsheets”. (I’d note that most LTER-based researchers knew this wasn’t true, but their main emphases in the 90’s and earlier were more site-based and long-term than integrative and synthetic). Attitudes changed fast about NCEAS as reports multiplied about how participation in Working Groups was extremely stimulating AND scientifically productive. Many thanks to Bill Murdoch and Mike Goodchild for introducing to ecology this working group model– that is now so commonplace that people have forgotten just how novel it was back in the 90’s.

    Growing numbers of researchers experienced the benefits of collaboration at NCEAS. I think we were witnessing what Nielsen in his wonderful new book “Reinventing Discovery” describes as fruits of leveraging “micro-expertise” and “collective intelligence” in an emerging era of networked science. Latent collaborative inclinations of ecologists now had a mechanism for realization– the NCEAS Working Group– allowing researchers to bring together their old, “used” data sets, that, combined with collectively novel perspectives, varied skill sets, and intensive interaction, yielded outstanding new insights. NCEAS provided, as our director for many years, Jim Reichman, liked to say (paraphrasing) “a place and time for a group of collaborators to immerse themselves in their science” with dedicated assistance in logistics and technology from the NCEAS staff and infrastructure.

    For me, though, it has been the willingness of ecologists to collaborate and share their ideas and data that has been extremely gratifying to witness. The outstanding scientific insights that have resulted from these collaborations hopefully vindicates the investment (thank you NSF and others!). I am proud that NCEAS has provided the support and mechanisms for these scientific advances to occur for over 16 years now. And I haven’t even touched upon the vibrant postdoctoral culture that is prevalent at NCEAS. I don’t think it was simply “right place, right time”, anymore than you could say this about the inevitability of landing on the moon And, to be clear, it ain’t necessarily over yet!

    • Thank you Mark and Jarrett for the replies–I appreciate folks who were there and who have thought much harder about NCEAS than I have taking the time to comment.

      Clearly there’s still a felt need for a synthesis center dedicated to ecology. I certainly agree that none of the other centers I listed fills that specific niche (while CIEE actually hasn’t been focused on Canadian issues so far, it currently lacks the funding to be more than a small operation). And yes, even though the culture of ecology has changed, there certainly is an argument that people still need a place where they can work (or visit periodically) that will let them immerse themselves in synthetic work. Perhaps especially because so many people would like to pursue that sort of work now.

      Mark wrote: “I’d assert that these [cultural] shifts, *minimally*, were accelerated by the existence of NCEAS 1.0.” I agree 100%, and have an older post saying precisely that. I hope nothing I wrote in this post implied otherwise.

      I also agree 100% (and have said elsewhere in posts and comments) that NCEAS was very risky at the time and it was not at all obvious at the time that it would succeed. Indeed, it’s basically for that reason that I asked the questions I asked in this post. I’m basically trying to get a sense, from folks who’ve thought more about it than me, of what kind of risks we ought to take, and what kind of risks we ought not to take. To the extent we seek to preserve or recreate NCEAS 1.0, that’s a risk-averse, don’t-fix-what-isn’t-broken, don’t-kill-the-goose-that-lays-golden-eggs approach.

      Re: NCEAS being founded at the right place and right time, I absolutely didn’t mean to imply that NCEAS was *purely* lucky, or even mainly lucky. I agree 100% that a good location and good timing were necessary but not at all sufficient for NCEAS to have had the impact it had. For instance, as I’ve posted and commented elsewhere, had NCEAS been founded when it was, but, say, not supported any postdocs, or not supported working groups, or focused on a narrow range of subject matter, it surely wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. And I’m sure there are other elements that made NCEAS successful that I’m not aware of.

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