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South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project

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Alicia Lanier
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The South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project is a $5M interdisciplinary research project funded by the National Science Foundation to explore development of a decision-making framework for South Florida water management decision-makers. The project is in year four of a five-year duration, with a geographicallydistributed team representing 10 universities across the U.S. and collaborators including the South Florida Water Management District. The team is developing a hydro-economic optimization model and basic science and economic inputs to evaluate management scenarios and decision-making for South Florida water and environmental resources. Management of this complex interdisciplinary project requires strategies, approaches, and tools beyond conventional approaches, and specifically those that support high levels of communication, collaboration, and transparency. Team science skills in facilitation, dialogue, and conflict resolution are required, as relationships and interactions are as important to success as technical competency. Adaptive management approaches ensure iterative and adaptive development, frequent communication, and collaborative planning, and along with team science skills, build critical trust. The SFWSC adaptive management strategy, using a ‘people over process’ philosophy, incorporates agile management frameworks, team science understanding, and collaborative communication and planning tools. The effectiveness on integration and productivity is continuously analyzed through in-depth interviews, retrospectives, and surveys of team members and stakeholders. Team members rate effectiveness on integration favorably, and have received praise from external advisors on the level of integration thus far achieved compared to similar interdisciplinary research projects.
Interdisciplinary research is increasingly called upon to find solutions to complex sustainability problems, yet co-creating usable knowledge can be challenging. This article offers broad lessons for conducting interdisciplinary science from the South Florida Water, Sustainability, and Climate Project (SFWSC), a 5-year project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). The goal was to develop a holistic decision-making framework to improve understanding of the complex natural–social system of South Florida water allocation and its threats from climate change, including sea level rise, using a water resources optimization model as an integration mechanism. The SFWSC project faced several challenges, including uncertainty with tasks, high task interdependence, and ensuring communication among geographically dispersed members. Our hypothesis was that adaptive techniques would help overcome these challenges and maintain scientific rigor as research evolved. By systematically evaluating the interdisciplinary management approach throughout the project, we learned that integration can be supported by a three-pronged approach: (1) Build a well-defined team and leadership structure for collaboration across geographic distance and disciplines, ensuring adequate coordination funding, encouraging cross-pollination, and allowing team structure to adapt; (2) intentionally design a process and structure for facilitating collaboration, creating mechanisms for routine analysis, and incorporating collaboration tools that foster communication; and (3) support integration within the scientific framework, by using a shared research output, and encouraging team members to adapt when facing unanticipated constraints. These lessons contribute to the international body of knowledge on interdisciplinary research and can assist teams attempting to develop sustainable solutions in complex natural–social systems.