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Using learning networks to understand complex systems: a case study of biological, geophysical and social research in the Amazon




Developing high-quality scientific research will be most effective if research communities with diverse skills and interests are able to share information and knowledge, are aware of the major challenges across disciplines, and can exploit economies of scale to provide robust answers and better inform policy. We evaluate opportunities and challenges facing the development of a more interactive research environment by developing an interdisciplinary synthesis of research on a single geographic region. We focus on the Amazon as it is of enormous regional and global environmental importance and faces a highly uncertain future. To take stock of existing knowledge and provide a framework for analysis we present a set of mini-reviews from fourteen different areas of research, encompassing taxonomy, biodiversity, biogeography, vegetation dynamics, landscape ecology, earth-atmosphere interactions, ecosystem processes, fire, deforestation dynamics, hydrology, hunting, conservation planning, livelihoods, and payments for ecosystem services. Each review highlights the current state of knowledge and identifies research priorities, including major challenges and opportunities. We show that while substantial progress is being made across many areas of scientific research, our understanding of specific issues is often dependent on knowledge from other disciplines. Accelerating the acquisition of reliable and contextualized knowledge about the fate of complex pristine and modified ecosystems is partly dependent on our ability to exploit economies of scale in shared resources and technical expertise, recognise and make explicit interconnections and feedbacks among sub-disciplines, increase the temporal and spatial scale of existing studies, and improve the dissemination of scientific findings to policy makers and society at large. Enhancing interaction among research efforts is vital if we are to make the most of limited funds and overcome the challenges posed by addressing large-scale interdisciplinary questions. Bringing together a diverse scientific community with a single geographic focus can help increase awareness of research questions both within and among disciplines, and reveal the opportunities that may exist for advancing acquisition of reliable knowledge. This approach could be useful for a variety of globally important scientific questions.