Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure

By: , and 



Demand for the opportunity to participate in a synthesis-center activity has increased in the years since the US National Science Foundation (NSF)–funded National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) opened its doors in 1995 and as more scientists across a diversity of scientific disciplines have become aware of what synthesis centers provide. The NSF has funded four synthesis centers, and more than a dozen new synthesis centers have been established around the world, some following the NSF model and others following different models suited to their national funding environment (

Scientific synthesis integrates diverse data and knowledge to increase the scope and applicability of results and yield novel insights or explanations within and across disciplines (Pickett et al. 2007, Carpenter et al. 2009). The demand for synthesis comes from the pressing societal need to address grand challenges related to global change and other issues that cut across multiple societal sectors and disciplines and from recognition that substantial added scientific value can be achieved through the synthesis-based analysis of existing data. Demand also comes from groups of scientists who see exciting opportunities to generate new knowledge from interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary collaboration, often capitalizing on the increasingly large volume and variety of available data (Kelling et al. 2009, Bishop et al. 2014, Specht et al. 2015b). The ever-changing nature of societal challenges and the availability of data with which to address them suggest there will be an expanding need for synthesis.

However, we are now entering a phase in which government support for some existing synthesis centers has ended or will be ending soon, forcing those centers to close or develop new operational models, approaches, and funding streams. We argue here that synthesis centers play such a unique role in science that continued long-term public investment to maximize benefits to science and society is justified. In particular, we argue that synthesis centers represent community infrastructure more akin to research vessels than to term-funded centers of science and technology (e.g., NSF Science and Technology Centers). Through our experience running synthesis centers and, in some cases, developing postfederal funding models, we offer our perspective on the purpose and value of synthesis centers. We present case studies of different outcomes of transition plans and argue for a fundamental shift in the conception of synthesis science and the strategic funding of these centers by government funding agencies.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure
Series title BioScience
DOI 10.1093/biosci/bix053
Volume 67
Issue 8
Year Published 2017
Language English
Publisher Oxford University Press
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center, John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis
Description 10 p.
First page 750
Last page 759
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