A Conversation with Dr. Neil Swanberg, NSF Arctic System Science Program Director

Witness the Arctic (WTA) had a conversation with Dr. Neil Swanberg, Program Director for the Arctic System Science Program (ARCSS) at NSF. He shared his perspective about how opportunities for arctic research are evolving at NSF, the value of and characteristics of successful interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary arctic science efforts, and the challenges and opportunities for the SEARCH program as it continues to develop.

WTA: In your view, how are opportunities for arctic research evolving at NSF?

Swanberg: I would say the most significant change in the Arctic Sciences competitions over the last few years has been the amalgamation of the Arctic Systems Science (ARCSS) and Arctic Natural Sciences (ANS) programs for the purpose of the competition. We take all proposals on arctic environmental science, review them jointly, and we parse out where we think the funding fits best. This is not the only way for ARCSS or ANS to fund proposals—we also have special competitions—but for the purpose of the general competition that's the way we're handling things, which also makes it easier for the PIs. In the past we heard from PIs that there was a great deal of angst over whether they should submit to ARCSS or ANS. Now there is an intentionally fuzzy boundary between the two programs, making that choice a nonproblem. It also makes it easier for us to look at the whole picture from the standpoint of money. Having said that, we are heading into some serious financial issues in the federal government. Budgets are going to be tight. That implies both science budgets and logistics budgets. There's a great deal of concern about the "fiscal cliff" and the debt ceiling. Either of those things could cause draconian changes in the way we're able to fund science. Public information in the press suggest that most budget scenarios are downward, and that would probably mean fewer things funded. We would do the best we could to minimize the impact, but there's only so much we could do—I think we just have to wait to see what happens.

I would add that we're not finished evolving, and we're looking at programs constantly. We are certainly interested in the role of the Arctic Observing Network (AON) and the intersection between ARCSS and AON, for example. Nothing is cast in stone; we try to make changes in response to community input. Another thing I would say to PIs concerned about this is that we will have town hall meetings at AGU. People should come, talk, and let us know what they think. We are always ready to listen.

WTA: From the program management perspective, why is transdisciplinary science valuable?

Swanberg: Setting aside that this is a priority at the foundation; I would say it's a priority because there is a sense that a lot of the really exciting cutting-edge science happens at the interface of disciplines. I would define transdisciplinary science questions as ones that are above the levels of individual disciplines, so that in order to answer the question you really have to use the tools of more than one discipline. There is a synergy that arises from people of different backgrounds looking at problems together. You find that people from different disciplines may have completely different approaches to a problem, which leads to new solutions. You also find that disciplines aren't real in the natural world--they're a human construction. Often we find that breakthroughs are happening at the intersection of those artificial human barriers. That's one of the strong motivations at the foundation for pursuing transdisciplinary science.

WTA: What challenges and opportunities do solicitations such as Arctic SEES and INSPIRE present to the research community?

Swanberg: Although I wasn't very involved in writing Arctic SEES, from my reading of the solicitation I suspect the challenge for a lot of PIs is in understanding the juncture of social science and natural science. I think the solicitation is largely focused on social science impacts--impacts on people--and the natural science has a lesser role as driver. I could be mistaken, but from the proposals I've seen I think a lot of other people have had difficulty with that as well. So I think that really understanding the solicitation is going to be the key. The opportunity certainly is the funding available and the effort to promote real interdisciplinary science as well as interagency and international science.

The opportunities offered by INSPIRE are obvious; it's a large pot of money with relatively little review. It is intended to solicit relatively simple proposals representing out-of-the-box ideas that people think could not get funding under the normal mechanisms because review panels seem too conservative.

It really is supposed to support projects that could not be done with the normal review process. I think the biggest challenge for PIs is figuring out whether their ideas fit this mechanism and identifying their intellectually distinct disciplines. For example, I would say that the combination of biology and chemistry is not really intellectually distinct in that we have biochemistry. There are other combinations like that, which are fairly obvious. A lot of environmental science unfortunately may also fit into that category. Some of the things people were thinking about when they put this thing together were engineering and biology, for example, or engineering and molecular genetics--fields that don't normally work together. Looking at the suite of proposals that were funded last year, I think there was a reasonably good effort at identifying those that were intellectually distinct, out-of-the-box, and transformative ideas. We're hoping that we see similar responses this year.

WTA: Do you have an idea how the arctic research community might respond to that?

Swanberg: Well, that's an interesting question. There was some disappointment that the community didn't respond very much to the opportunity last year. There were a handful of inquiries and one award that included polar research: it was not predominantly a polar proposal but we were included in it. Other parts of the foundation were very aggressive with INSPIRE.

The message to the arctic community is to pay attention to the INSPIRE solicitation and think out of the box; think very hard about how you can fulfill the motivations in the announcement. There will be another foundation-wide solicitation this year so there's more material to read. My advice, as always, is don't try to force an idea to the announcement. Read the announcement and try to develop your idea. The key things we're looking for are exciting transformative science and proposals that involve widely distant fields and do not fit the normal review process.

WTA: In your experience, what are the challenges to developing successful transdisciplinary science efforts?

Swanberg: As I see it, there is one overriding challenge and that is communication. If you're really looking at widely different fields, you find the vocabulary and language is different. You really have to learn each other's language.

WTA: What are the characteristics of successful efforts?

Swanberg: Both tractable and attractive questions are needed. Tractable questions can actually be answered in a reasonable time frame. Attractive questions appeal to several different fields. One of the great successes of the Fresh Water effort we funded some years ago is that they identified a question that really resonated with people and that they can answer--this motivates people. I think the question needs to be not just of interest to field "A" needing the expertise of field "B" to answer. That will never work. As an example, in the 1980s as biological oceanographers were getting interested in how the physics influenced the biology, they would try to entrain physical oceanographers into their efforts. But the questions they were asking weren't terribly interesting to the physical oceanographers, so it was difficult. I think that is less true now the fields have changed. Another example is in the arctic sciences; many arctic natural scientists are interested in addressing questions that touch on social science issues. They want to engage with social scientists, but they don't really know what questions interest social scientists. The key to making a true interdisciplinary effort work is not looking to another discipline to provide a service but developing a real partnership.

WTA: Is this the kind of effort that INSPIRE would support?

Swanberg: Certainly, as long as it is something that could not get funded in the normal review process because it's perceived as being high risk. They are very keen on transdisciplinary research.

WTA: In your view, has SEARCH supported interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary arctic science efforts?

Swanberg: SEARCH started out very definitely as a disciplinary effort and has expanded. It started out as atmospheric and oceanographic physics and expanded to include a whole system-wide look. In producing its science plans and vision of how the arctic system works, it did support interdisciplinary efforts. But in terms of having fostered actual transdisciplinary research, aside from some of the things that SEARCH has taken under its wing such as the Fresh Water effort, I don't think there's been a lot of that. I don't level that as a criticism; this is extremely difficult to do. SEARCH has been such a huge idea for people to get their heads around that they've attacked it from the standpoint of disciplinary and subdisciplinary pieces. This approach has been the same in most of the global change programs. They tend to take the huge view of the global system and then break it into the disciplinary units and try to address those. To start looking the whole system level in an interdisciplinary way, SEARCH has to get more engaged at the highest level in doing the actual science rather than just planning it. I think this is why I was so keen on seeing how it would move forward with the "Understanding Change" component and engagement in a really proactive effort to do some of this synthesis, because that's probably where the interdisciplinary stuff is going to happen.

I have been speaking from the standpoint of what has been done and not what's going to be done. I think that in moving to the themes and science goals and so forth that have been established--if SEARCH pursues those themes and does not make them disciplinary--I think it could become VERY interdisciplinary in how it approaches things and could even develop a fairly hands-on way of managing them. That could change the answer to that question considerably. They could well be moving in the right direction. Neither the foundation nor SEARCH nor the community has reached maturity in the way they are doing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary stuff. This work is pretty hard, and even the definitions defy some people, so I wouldn't fault anyone for not completing this task. That is particularly true for much of the work the arctic community is doing. It's not easy.

WTA: What is the value of the SEARCH science goals and framework?

Swanberg: In principle, setting out an agreed-on set of questions and a plan for addressing them should enable a community to focus its attention on various pieces of the problem that are appealing to them. In practice, I think the initial SEARCH science plan and goals of about a decade ago were probably too encompassing and too broad. That was true of both the SEARCH science plan and the SEARCH implementation workshop. The value of the science plan and goals is in identifying some priorities and developing a good target. And everyone is helped if the agencies can buy into those priorities. Once again, moving to the themes that SEARCH is now considering may help considerably because they define a smaller target and more tractable problems than the SEARCH science plan from the early 2000s. This suggests again that SEARCH is moving in the right direction on identifying themes. I think it's not coincidental that at the same time IARPC is doing the same thing.

WTA: What potential does ACADIS offer?

Swanberg: ACADIS was part of an initial effort to improve the coordination of SEARCH, and I see it as a critical step in the synthesis activity. As we discovered in ARCSS synthesis activities, access to data was the first thing people needed to actually do synthesis. There was no place to go for that access; people knew only where some data were. I think the challenges to ACADIS will be in discovering the data and in finding imaginative ways to manipulate and view the data. Most data centers will let you discover data by the discipline or the name of the PI or geography. But suppose you're a social scientist and you want to know about something to do with sea ice--or maybe you don't know exactly what your question is--how do you discover useful data? Somehow we need to define something like an expert system that will allow people to find out what kinds of data exist—data they don't know about but may be very important to them. I laid this challenge before ACADIS during our site visit last summer. I think this is going to be one of the big challenges in the next few decades as interdisciplinary research expands, for SEARCH and a lot of environmental science. There will be people in one discipline who do not understand what kinds of data exist in another discipline, what data they need, and that the conventions about presenting and talking about their data are different from what they are used to. This is a huge challenge ahead of us. I see ACADIS as being a very important activity, and my hope is that ultimately it will be much more than just a data center. I see ACADIS as being a critical piece of what will probably be a larger puzzle to do synthesis, and we need to figure out what the other pieces are and try to build them.

WTA: From the perspective of a federal agency, what are the challenges and opportunities for the SEARCH program as it evolves?

Swanberg: That's a good question. What struck me first is the challenge of matching expectations with shrinking budgets. But in a larger sense the really difficult thing is trying to align the motivation for involvement with the objectives of the program. By that I mean that people get involved with large programs like this because they want to foster their own science or they want to make sure that their piece of science is included in the science plan. That level of motivation is necessary because people are not paid to do these things. The only way they can get paid is if ultimately their science achieves some sort of notice in a large program. But a large program needs to be more than an umbrella. To make a program like SEARCH function well, you need people who can think at a very high level—people who are thinking above and beyond their own discipline and addressing the large questions, which helps create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Another challenge is getting buy-in from other agencies. I think we're seeing more agency involvement, but interagency activities are always difficult. Agencies have different cultures, traditions, rules, and obviously different budget priorities. The ideal is for SEARCH to be the "go to" place for knowing about the Arctic. Other agencies would want to buy in because involvement will help them complete their missions. The same applies to international activities.

Ultimately this isn't about SEARCH. It's about understanding the Arctic. Scientists in other agencies and other parts of the world are trying to do the same thing. We want to complement their efforts, not duplicate them. We have to see SEARCH as a tool to engage with partners in other parts of the world. And obviously again NSF can't do it all. We've got to make it very attractive to other parties to get involved with whatever SEARCH is doing. SEARCH has to be a beacon. I think that you can never force people to be involved but if they see it as valuable, then they will engage.