What does training in translational ecology look like?

By Chris Ives

What kind of a workforce do we need to tackle current and future environmental challenges? This is the question that Mark Schwartz and colleagues recently tried to answer in their recent paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They call for the training and development of “translational ecologists”. But what exactly is a ‘translational ecologist’? Is it a useful concept for navigating future research and teaching or is it just a new buzzword with little substance? In this blog I summarise the paper and provide a few personal reflections. I then mention some exciting job opportunities at the University of Nottingham for new staff contributing to a new holistic, practice-based environmental education programme, similar to those advocated by Schwartz et al.

So what is a ‘translational ecologist’? Schwartz et al. define one as “a professional ecologist with diverse disciplinary expertise and skill sets, as well as a suitable personal disposition, who engages across social, professional, and disciplinary boundaries to partner with decision makers to achieve practical environmental solutions.” The authors highlight three fields of training that is needed for equipping ‘translational ecologists’: (1) multidisciplinary knowledge, (2) practical skills, and (3) personal aptitudes. While I don’t feel a strong personal attachment to the term itself, I really liked the paper because it emphasises qualities and capacities that are often overlooked in environmental training and practice.

The first attribute of translational ecologists is multidisciplinary training. While I do agree with this, I thought it was the least novel dimension of the paper as the need for diverse expertise in addressing environmental challenges has been recognised for a long time. Indeed, conservation science and sustainability science have both been defined as broad interdisciplinary pursuits. Similarly, it’s not new to advocate for scientists to engage with stakeholders (see Cook et al 2013). What I did find useful was the presentation of knowledge as a ‘T’ – i.e. the need to have both deep knowledge of a topic (e.g. metapopulation dynamics in agricultural landscapes), the ‘downstroke’; and a breadth of knowledge from other fields (e.g. law, psychology, toxicology), the ‘cross-stroke’.

The second attribute of translational ecologists is a set of non-scientific skills essential for generating change. According to the authors, such non-traditional skills include negotiation, group leadership, facilitation skills and ethics. These are so often under-valued in my experience, yet are essential to making change happen. Recognising the importance of these skills certainly raises challenges for traditional academic institutions, where academics often (understandably) focus on scientific skills and knowledge.

One reason why I really liked this paper was its emphasis on ‘personal disposition’ as essential to impact. This is the third attribute of translational ecologists. Personal attributes include ‘emotional intelligence’, being comfortable with uncertainty, an ability to view problems from different vantage points along with traits such as patience, humility and a professional focus towards society. I fully agree with all of these and they certainly relate to individuals’ inner worlds as being important ‘deep leverage points’ for societal change (see here and here, for example). One question that came to my mind however was whether such qualities can be cultivated as part of a training programme or whether they are to be considered ‘prerequisites’ for training in ‘translational ecology’.

After outlining these three attributes of translational ecology, the authors (helpfully) presented them into a schematic that helps individuals identify their suitability as translational ecologists and perhaps areas where further growth is needed. Figure 1 shows a number of potential locations of interdisciplinary scholars (depicted by a ‘T’) according to their capacity along two axes: translational skills (the second attribute), and personal disposition. I think it usefully demonstrates that simply having a grasp of a diverse range of intellectual insights may not be sufficient to be someone who brings about real-world change for the environment.

T graph

Figure 1. A depiction of where interdisciplinary ecologists may sit along the two additional axes of translational ecology: translational skills and personal disposition.

Although I very much enjoyed reading the paper, there are a couple of points of critique I thought I should mention. First, is that there seemed to be an underlying assumption that change comes through engaging formally identified ‘decision-makers’ – this is true in many instances but in many parts of the world change may come more effectively through bottom-up influences. Also I was concerned that the term ‘translational ecology’ elevates ecology over other fields of environmental scholarship. While it is understandable given the journal and the authors’ backgrounds, the concept could equally be termed a ‘translational geographer’, ‘translational climate scientist’, or ‘translational sustainability scientist’.

The second half of the paper includes discussion of how training for ‘translational ecologists’ can be achieved. The authors argue that the need for ‘translational ecologists’ is going to increase dramatically particularly in boundary organisations outside of academia. They then discuss the importance of education and training for equipping individuals for this task, both within and outside of traditional academic institutions.

This timing and content of the paper was particularly pertinent to me, as I’m currently helping to develop a proposed new MSc programme at the University of Nottingham in “Environmental Leadership and Management”. Schwartz et al.’s assertion that “traditional graduate training, which continues to emphasize the importance of curiosity- and theory- driven inquiry, is often insufficient for developing aptitude to inform practical solutions” resonated with my and my colleagues’ recognition that this new teaching programme must equip students to be agents of positive change and not just a source of academic knowledge about the world. Developing training for practical skills and personal aptitude will be an exciting challenge going forward.

In the School of Geography, we are looking to employ a number of new academic staff from September 2018. We are looking for individuals with expertise in areas such as sustainability science, environmental decision-making and stewardship, environmental humanities, health geography, climate risk, and geomorphology. In addition to the opportunity to pursue research along these themes, these positions represent a chance to contribute to developing a transformational, interdisciplinary environmental master’s programme. This is an exciting time for our school, so if these posts would be of interest to you or someone you know, please take a look here:

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/jobs/currentvacancies/ref/SOC439 – 4 posts for Assistant and Associate Professors

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/jobs/currentvacancies/ref/SOC464517 – Fixed term Assistant Professor until 31st January 2020


2 thoughts on “What does training in translational ecology look like?

  1. Pingback: Training well-rounded and work-ready ecologists | The Solitary Ecologist

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