BROWN BAG SEMINAR: Synthesis within the Interagency Ecological Program: Growing to Meet Increasing Needs

The Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) is a consortium of State and federal agencies that has been conducting cooperative ecological investigations since the 1970s. The IEP relies upon multidisciplinary teams of agency, academic, nongovernmental organizations, and other scientists to conduct collaborative and scientifically sound monitoring, research, modeling, and synthesis efforts for various aspects of the aquatic ecosystem.

In 2018, the Delta Science Program hosted a series of brown bag seminars that highlighted how research and monitoring performed by the IEP is relevant to decisions being made in the Delta.

Dr. Louise Conrad now leads the Delta Science Program.  Prior to taking on that position, Dr. Conrad was the program manager for estuarine science and synthesis at the Department of Water Resources where her work included visioning and implementing the synthesis program for the Interagency Ecological Program, a consortium of nine agencies which perform monitoring and science in the Delta.  In this brown bag seminar, she discusses the synthesis efforts underway at the Interagency Ecological Program and how they are being used to inform management.


Dr. Conrad began by defining synthesis, noting that it is a word that is used in many different fields.  For example in the field of chemistry, if you put together multiple compounds, you are synthesizing them into a more complex compound; the textile industry uses synthesis a lot in synthetic fabrics.

However, in the Bay-Delta context, it is the synthesis of environmental data.  One article on the subject was written by Steven Carpenter at the University of Wisconsin Madison; in 2009, he wrote this paper in Bioscience which talks about accelerating synthesis in ecology and environmental sciences.  In his paper, Mr. Carpenter defines it as this: ‘Synthesis occurs when disparate data, concepts, or theories are integrated in ways that yield new knowledge, insights, or explanations.’

However, synthesis is not the same thing as analysis, Dr. Conrad pointed out.  “Certainly by bringing multiple datasets together, you are synthesizing them and maybe analyzing them,” she said.  “However, to do synthesis, you might not necessarily be using data.  You might be reading papers on multiple different aspects of a certain field, and synthesizing that information into a review, or distilling that information into something that is digestible for the public or for managers.”

Mr. Carpenter explains why synthesis is needed, writing that ‘The ‘burden of knowledge’ … embedded in increasing numbers of journals, papers, and books requires synthesis, if problem-solvers are to use that mass of information efficiently.’

We are in a world that is rich in information; certainly we are in ecology, and we need synthesis in order to digest some of that information,” Dr. Conrad said.

The world is faced with many different and increasingly complex questions and we are going to need synthesis to equip us with knowledge to face them, Mr. Carpenter notes, suggesting that having centers or nuclei of synthesis activity embedded in synthesis centers are really the way to get synthesis done.  He wrote, ‘Synthesis centers offer isolation from distractions, provide neutral ground, encouraging a greater diversity of participation, and in this setting, participants work towards fast progress on exciting questions.’

Dr. Conrad pointed out that there is a synthesis center in California, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, which supports synthesis in many ways, such as helping with management of diverse data sets and bringing people together to work in a dedicated way to synthesizing information for management.  Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing number of synthesis centers worldwide, including China, Europe, the United States, and Australia.  There are about 11 total now in the world as well as an international synthesis consortium that comes together from the synthesis centers to synthesize what is working for them.

We have synthesis of synthesis, and it’s a testament to how important this is,” said Dr. Conrad.  “It’s important to know that we are not the only ones … we have models to follow of what will work, what we maybe shouldn’t try, and we would do well to look at these models.”


Dr. Conrad said there are three reasons why the Interagency Ecological Program needs synthesis:

IEP has volumes of data:  The IEP has over 5 decades of monitoring data, from water quality to nutrients to sturgeon.  “IEP is sampling the entire system; on any given day, someone is out in the field collecting data,” she said.  “There is a large network of high frequency monitoring that is happening; every 15 minutes, over 150 stations are collecting a suite of data about water quality.  So we have a ton of data, and to really leverage it, we’ll need synthesis to bring these data sets to be able to talk to each other and to address questions for management.”

Adaptive management requires synthesis:  The needs for adaptive management of water project operations and habitat restoration will require synthesis.  The ‘evaluate and respond’ phase of the adaptive management cycle is synthesis; we have to be able to look at what we’ve done and provide timely information to adjust that project in the future, and IEP data, since it is so extensive, will be key o that effort, she said.  Some examples:

The FLASH report which was the evaluation of the Fall 2011 low salinity habitat investigations where there were wet conditions and a whole suite of studies going on that looked at the ecosystem response to those wet conditions; the report is a synthesis of their observations.

More recently, the Department of Water Resources operated the Suisun Marsh Salinity Control Gates to improve low salinity habitat for Delta smelt in Suisun Marsh in August of 2018.  “We need now to be looking at exactly what happened.  Do we want to do this again?  How should we modify it, if we should at all?  There is a large suite of data to analyze and synthesize now.”

The California Eco Restore initiative plans to restore tidal wetland habitat.  “We need to understand as we move forward with continuing these projects, is it having the intended effects?  All of this is synthesis work is directly informative to management.”

Synthesis can help address the increasing complexity of managing the Bay-Delta in a changing ecosystem:   Researchers from Texas A&M University have predicted an extreme future for estuaries as climate change proceeds.  They note that estuaries stand at the cusp of both oceanic and freshwater environments and will experience increased variability from both of those systems, and yet we still don’t totally understand what are the effects of drought or extreme flood on ecosystems.  In the Delta, it’s not just Mother Nature tinkering with knobs; it’s also us, she said.  So how do all of those anthropogenic and natural influences affect what we see?

Our Bay Delta system will certainly not be an exception to this type of change,” Dr. Conrad said, noting that in January of 2017, the Roaring River levees in Suisun Marsh overtopping.  “We are likely to see more of this.  And this is happening in the context of an ecosystem we know is already changing because we are seeing and continuing to see species declines and changing habitat.  For example, invasive aquatic vegetation coverage on Liberty Island is now by recent estimates covering 35% of the waterways where just over a decade ago, it was less than 5%.  So that is significant and it’s going to have impacts on the systems that we’re trying to restore.”

Synthesis can help assess and track the trends we’re seeing because if we don’t understand the trends, we can’t address them,” she said.  “We can also leverage data to start predicting specifically what will our management challenges be.  Existing data and models are important for making these predictions, and we need to do that in a way that is specific to our Bay Delta system, not California as a whole or the Western United States as a whole.  We can also review and find gaps in our existing knowledge so we know where to focus our science management.”


Dr. Conrad presented the IEP conceptual model (lower, left), noting that it’s important to think about where science and synthesis science exist within the Delta’s science landscape.

This is where the people are going to be really important because we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and decide to do this,” she said.  “We already are, but I think the challenges are such that we can even do more.”

She next presented the slide showing the building blocks of synthesis (above, right), acknowledging that her thinking is highly influenced by her colleagues and others.

IEP and I would say our science enterprise in general needs to enhance its open science practices,” she said, crediting Vanessa Tobias for bringing this into the spotlight through her work with the Data Utilization Workgroup.  “It’s about increasing the accessibility and visibility of IEP data and its work overall.  We need to make it easier for people who are potential collaborators to see us and then use our information and our data.”

There are some specific ways to do this.  She gave the examples of the Environmental Data Initiative which is an NSF-funded open access data repository or GitHub which is an online tool for social coding and analysis teams.  “These are ways to catalyze the work that we do and bring in collaborators,” she said.

Secondly, IEP needs to work on integrating the many monitoring datasets.  “Many of them are collecting data on similar or the same type of environmental parameters, so it makes sense if we can integrate those data across datasets so that we can access one dataset for zooplankton or phytoplankton or Delta smelt or tule perch,” she said.  “For example, there are at least six surveys and studies that are monitoring zooplankton. … It’s worthwhile to try and integrate these and evaluate both field and lab practices.  How are we collecting and then processing these samples and can other differences that are limiting for us to make these datasets talk to each other.  Our goal is a single integrated dataset across surveys.”

The IEP has loaded some data on the Environmental Data Initiative repository with the goal is to make IEP data accessible with the data and metadata formatted consistently.  Dr. Conrad mentioned that they have added the Yolo Bypass Fisheries Monitoring Program and the US FWS Delta Juvenile Fish Monitoring Program on the Environmental Data Initiative, and now these datasets have a digital object identifier and they are citable in the primary literature.


The IEP uses synthesis teams to address particular topics.  The teams are formed based on the need and the topic, and they come in different sizes, so it is not the same team from project to project.  Dr. Conrad noted that in the best practices literature for synthesis, the teams should be multi-disciplinary and engage a diverse group, as these groups are more likely to have novel approaches that may be helpful for uncovering information you wouldn’t otherwise.

Not every synthesis team needs to be or should be 15 to 20 people, she said, noting that it isn’t necessarily the right format for every topic.  For some projects, there are small teams of 2 to 3 people, that are likely to be informal and generated from a bottom up initiative; the scientists working close to the actual collection of data know their data best, and they have a unique perspective on how their data can and should be used.  They may have ideas that managers that spend more of their time going to meetings and planning wouldn’t have.  “This is a very valuable part of synthesis and probably one of the most promising avenues for enhancing our ecological understanding of the system, if we can engage these small teams, and we have,” said Dr. Conrad.

There are larger teams which are likely to be formal as they are explicit elements in the IEP work plan.  They are likely to be top-down initiatives where managers said, ‘We really need information about X, the scientists need to figure this out.’  “In this case, simply because it’s more people, we’re probably going to have broader representation across affiliations,” she said.

She then gave some examples of the work that synthesis teams have done at IEP.

Delta smelt and temperature: An important question is what does the future temperature climate look like for Delta smelt? Larry Brown led a diverse, small group of people that looked at downscaled climate change model predictions that were capable of predicting temperature conditions 100 years out in specific regions of the Delta and combined that with information from physiology lab base research on what temperature do Delta smelt experience heat stress and mortality.  They compiled this into a synthesis project that was published in 2016.

There are a lot of tidbits of wisdom that come out of this paper if you read the discussion,” she said.  “The real take home point here is that we are going to see significant thermal habitat constriction for Delta smelt over the next 50 years.  They show that this is going to be especially prevalent in the north Delta, and they remarked this is actually where much of the tidal wetland restoration is planned for the north Delta, but unfortunately, it will be warm, so I think that’s a worthy consideration for management.”

Flooding patterns in the Delta:  Another small synthesis team example is Shruti Khanna with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who wanted to know how flooding patterns differ across years in Delta regions.  This is important because many native fishes respond to variability of the flooded area that’s available and shallow water habitat that occurs ephemerally as a result of wet years.  She was able to take a global surface water dataset that classified the wetted area over the whole globe for every month from 1984 to 2015.  Ms. Kahanna was able to look at specific areas of the Delta in wet years and dry years.

We have a different signal of wet years across these different Delta regions, and she showed that only in the Cosumnes region, the northeast Delta, and the Yolo Bypass do you really have a signal of wet years,” said Dr. Conrad.  “Otherwise, if you’re in the Central Delta or some areas of Suisun, you’re not going to see the same amount of habitat, regardless of what year it is.  And I think that’s pretty remarkable.”

Management Analysis Synthesis Team or MAST: This is an example of work done with a larger team.  It was led by the USGS’s Larry Brown and Anke Mueller-Solger when she was the IEP Lead Scientist.  The question was, in 2011, the Fall Midwater Trawl saw a bump in Delta smelt.  Why did that happen?  The project was an extended effort to develop a conceptual model to test the hypotheses about why 2011 was such a good year.

This conceptual model has now been used in many different formats, I think most notably the Delta smelt resiliency strategy which came out from the Natural Resources Agency in 2016, where we have a science-based list of 13 actions that are designed to address the drivers of Delta smelt decline,” she said.  “This speaks to the question of how is synthesis informing management.  This is case in point.

Fall-run chinook salmon monitoring:  This was a large team effort that was the result of a request from the IEP directors to evaluate the monitoring networks for winter run chinook salmon and sturgeon.  Rachel Johnson and Joe Heublein from NOAA Fisheries stepped up to the task.

This group did a beautiful job of evaluating 11 datasets and determining exactly what do we get out of them, do we get genetic information, are we getting growth information, are we getting timing information, what are we getting from each of these datasets, and where are we falling down, and letting our finger come off the pulse of the winter run chinook salmon population.  This work is published in our local San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sciences, suggesting real science advancements.  How can we manage our science going forward for winter run chinook salmon and our monitoring network to improve it so that we can inform our management better.  It was also a major conceptual model effort and like the Delta smelt resiliency strategy, we now have, largely because of this effort, a salmon resiliency strategy that is also a list of actions that we should take on to improve conditions for the species.”

Ecosystem High Flows in 2017:  The most recent example is the question of the high flows in 2017 and what the ecosystem responses were.  This was responsive to the biological opinion call for management of wet conditions in above normal and wet years, and was this action effective at improving habitat for Delta smelt?

We used our Delta smelt conceptual model and leveraged multiple science collaborations to get some information,” she said.  “One, we found out through innovative work from Michael McWilliams at Anchor QEA that the summer of 2017 was very warm; maybe conditions were wetter, but it was hot.  And Jim Hobbs at UC Davis who does quite a bit of work with Delta smelt otoliths and understanding growth rates has shown us that we also had reduced growth.  So we maybe didn’t get the response from Delta smelt that we would have liked to have seen.  Was it flow based?  Perhaps not.  Brian Mahardja and Larry Brown led this effort and the team is completing a report.”


Looking forward, Dr. Conrad said the IEP has big plans for 2019 that include integrating datasets across programs, evaluating the real-time monitoring network in the Delta, and getting more datasets on the Environmental Data Initiative repository.  The IEP will have workgroups that will be addressing nutria invasion, invasive aquatic vegetation, and the ecosystem effects of flow alterations. They are also working on a synthetic document for the status and trends in the IEP datasets.  The end goal is to get to distilled information.

Dr. Conrad acknowledged there’s a lot of work planned, but not all have dedicated time for synthesis in their job descriptions.  “It’s a lot of work to do this,” she said.  “It’s not a part-time job.  And I think that this is where we can remind ourselves of the benefits of synthesis centers and what Stephen Carpenter worked in his 2009 article that we have this model of synthesis centers offering isolation from distraction, providing neutral ground, encouraging greater diversity of participation, those are three points that this is where we can think hard about how we can do better, especially in offering a dedicated space organizationally for synthesis.  … So we need to think programmatically about what we can do to make this a protected space for synthesis and the communication from this, celebrating all the while, all the people that said, ‘I want to do this.  While I’m not running a monitoring program or supervising staff, I want to do a zooplankton synthesis or I want to start a climate change project workteam.’”

I leave you with this, my favorite quote about synthesis from EO Wilson, ‘the world henceforth will be run by synthesizers.  People who are able to put together the right information and the right time, think critically about it, and then make important choices wisely.”

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