UM 'synthesis' center seeks to balance nature, people

Scientists, economists, politicians, educators and even an artist gathered Monday in Annapolis to mark the launch of an unusual University of Maryland think tank that aims to bring academic disciplines together to tackle thorny environmental issues.

The aim of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center is to foster collaboration among natural and social scientists so they can help policy-makers, businesses and the public find ways to balance the needs of people and the environment.

"We don't do experiments here, we don't have laboratories," said Margaret A. Palmer, the center's executive director and a professor of entomology. Instead, she said, the center will assemble teams of experts to study pressing environmental problems, arrange workshops in the center's rented offices in downtown Annapolis and provide technical support to pull together and analyze information.

The center is underwritten by a $27.5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, the largest such gift ever to the University of Maryland. It is one of four scientific "synthesis" centers nationally to be launched with NSF grants, but arguably the one with the broadest mandate, as the others focus on ecology, math and biology, and evolution.

The state is providing $150,000 a year in direct funding, plus an equivalent amount from other existing funds redirected to the new venture, according to Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. His center is one of the new venture's organizational partners, along with Resources for the Future, a Washington policy think tank. Other U.S. and foreign institutions are participating as well, including Coppin State University, the University of Michigan and Washington State University.

"There are some challenges that are so large we can only tackle them by working together," said Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was joined by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and state legislative leaders in heralding the center's formation.

One of the challenges will be to conquer confusion over the pronounciation of the center's acronym. It was pronounced differently in several speeches Monday; officially SESYNC, sounds a bit like "succinct."

In its first major project, the center will examine the impact of large population shifts on the environment, including the growth — and in some cases, decline — of urban areas, said Jonathan G. Kramer, director of interdisciplinary science and former director of the Maryland Sea Grant program.

Officials also introduced an artist-in-residence, Sri Prabha of Miami, whose nature-inspired paintings hang on the center's walls. He'll spend some time in Annapolis this summer, Kramer said.