A 2014 SFI working group discusses settlements and scaling laws in the ancient world. (Photo: Santa Fe Institute)

Workshops and working groups are among the defining features of science at SFI. Working groups convene small gatherings, often to tackle a specific question or achieve a stated goal, such as writing a grant proposal or drafting a paper. Workshops include a larger, often more varied, group of participants for focused discussions. Advance descriptions of upcoming meetings fill the pages of our print newsletter every four months, but the dividends sometimes follow months or years down the line. 

“Bringing people together in workshops and working groups for intensive brainstorming, stimulating talks, and extended conversation is one of SFI’s superpowers,” says Jennifer Dunne, SFI’s Vice President for Science. “Outcomes are not always expected or obvious or immediate. In addition to the myriad research articles and high-impact perspective pieces and successful grant proposals, they include entirely new areas of inquiry.” 

A working group cohosted by current External Professors Tim Kohler (Washington State University) and Marten Scheffer (Wageningen University) in 2018, called “The Human Niche,” showed its first formal payoff this past May with a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study, which received international media attention, estimates that, without dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, areas that one-third of humans call home will become as hot as the Sahara within 50 years. This is well outside of the temperature range that humanity has preferred for at least the last six millennia. 

The paper was just one of four separate research questions to take form during the four-day meeting, says Kohler. “We went into the working group with two papers in mind, and two others emerged from the discussions. We’ll be producing papers for the next several years.” 

The eight participants in “The Human Niche” working group, like at most meetings at SFI, spanned a variety of disciplines. “Everyone had a different area of expertise, with just enough overlap to talk to each other intelligently,” says Kohler. 

And despite its small size, the group included people who had never met before. One of the less-tangible outcomes from workshops and working groups are the relationships that form between participants. “People form research alliances at working groups, and these tend to endure for quite a long time,” says Kohler. In his case, “The Human Niche” introduced Kohler to Tim Lenton, an earth systems scientist from the University of Exeter. “Now when I want to work with someone who has the expertise that Tim has, I know where to go. Two and half years ago, that would not have been the case.” 

Since its founding in 1984, workshops and working groups have been central to the life of SFI; its very structure and mission emerged during two founding workshops that included more than three dozen scientists, business leaders, and other creative thinkers. In 2018, “The Human Niche” was just one of 27 scientific meetings at SFI. 

As COVID-19 brought an abrupt halt to the in-person meetings on campus this year, some groups have found creative ways to continue meeting virtually, while others have postponed until they can safely travel to meet again. “The pandemic has allowed a greater fraction of our extended community to observe and participate in virtual working groups as well as seminars. When we open back up to visitors and in-person meetings, we want to retain aspects of the enhanced access that online activities allow,” says Dunne.