Synthesis Centers Provide the ‘Special Sauce’

Synthesis centers like NIMBioS provide the special sauce that make the research magic happen. But you already knew that, didn’t you, dear reader?

A new paper published this week in BioScience argues that synthesis centers provide the critical research infrastructure that helps to catalyze collaboration, leading to breakthrough ideas, and that they are needed now more than ever.

“Synthesis Centers as Critical Research Infrastructure” presents the history and rationale for supporting synthesis centers as well as explores their long-term viability. The paper is a collaborative effort of researchers from synthesis centers around the world, including NIMBioS, that form the International Synthesis Consortium.

The National Science Foundation has funded four synthesis centers, beginning in 1995 with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Worldwide, there are also more than a dozen new synthesis centers.

The authors distinguish synthesis centers from universities or other interdisciplinary research centers as centers integrate or re-purpose data and knowledge to expand research questions in the scientific community.

Scientists who come to collaborate with others at synthesis centers often are able to make new connections and think creatively on new approaches and methods. This “associative thinking” is one of the hallmarks of a synthesis center, the authors write.

The authors posit that synthesis centers should be viewed as fundamental to science, like telescopes or ocean vessels are to astronomy and oceanography.

“As infrastructure, synthesis centers may not be as tangible as telescopes, but technology allow cannot match the brain power of a diverse group of experts who are committed to focusing their combined insights, experience, tools, and networks on a shared problem in a collegial environment,” they write.

The six critical ingredients for synthesis center success are active management, computing and informatics capabilities, flexibility (topic, length of activities, scheduling, meeting structure), student and fellow support, diversity, and the value of unstructured time, according to the paper.

The paper cites a few examples of policy impacts of synthesis-center research, including one of the most cited papers of all time, a foundational paper that helped establish the principle of ecosystem services and the discipline of ecological economics. The 1997 paper was a result of an NCEAS working group.

The full paper is available at

NISER Director Pam Bishop who is also NIMBioS Associate Director for STEM Evaluation and Research was a co-author.

Citation: Baron JS et al. 2017. Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure. BioScience. DOI:

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