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



What makes research transdisciplinary?

Integration and Implementation Insights

Community member post by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke (biography)

What do we mean by transdisciplinarity and when can we say we are doing transdisciplinary research? There is a broad literature with a range of different meanings and perspectives. There is the focus on real-world problems with multiple stakeholders in the “life-world”, and a sense of throwing open the doors of academia to transcend disciplinary boundaries to address and solve complex problems. But when it comes to the practicalities of work in the field, there is often uncertainty and even disagreement about what is and isn’t transdisciplinarity.

Let me give an example. In discussing our collaborations and inquiry in the Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation project case study areas (Transylvania, Romania and Oldenburg, Germany), we were struck by the very different kinds of engagement for various sub-teams and individuals. In some instances, researchers are collaborating closely with a core…

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Read an Excerpt of Beginning to End Hunger

Check out this very nice chapter (follow the links) — eight excellent points by Jahi Chappell on common myths of global food security.

Beginning to End Hunger

The full first chapter of my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger, is now available on UC Press’s page for BTEH! 

This introductory chapter, titled “Food and famine futures, past and present,” introduces Beginning to End Hunger’s main themes, and puts them into broader context by way of a brief history of thought on hunger and famines and my own intellectual evolution. It offers eight simple rules for understanding our food systems, correcting common misconceptions about world hunger and how to solve it. It also argues that critical thought and reflection is needed to understand hunger and to understand the reasons why it is so often framed in expedient ways. Rather than focusing on how much food is produced, for example, ending hunger will require re-thinking and re-making the institutions (norms, rules, and values) that govern food systems. This first chapter (and the excerpt) ends with an outline of…

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Hidden indicators for a landscape under stress

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

Sometimes the landscapes around us change faster than we think. Be it through rural flight and urbanization, industrialization of villages or agriculture, land grabbing or degradation of nature, the landscapes we live in are changing gradually or rapidly.

In some areas, fast landscape changes outpaces our ability to adjust and leaves us grappling with our sense of place of the landscapes we used to know. In some areas, it may be hard to pin point what changed exactly but we cannot help but feel alienated in a subconscious way. Inhabitants of such changing landscapes might feel disempowered as their own ability to influence landscape changes diminishes in this increasingly complex system. These and many more factors might lead to inhabitant’s having different understandings about the challenges and contrasts of that landscape. When a system is difficult to understand, it can become easy to blame actors that one…

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Reflections on the role of environmental psychology in transitions towards sustainability

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

Author: Kathleen Klaniecki

 Earlier this month, I attended a wonderful conference on environmental psychology (ICEP 2017) in A Coruña, Spain.  This year’s theme was Theories of Change in Sustainability Transitions and Social Innovation.  As someone who straddles multiple disciplines in her research (as many of us do), this conference left me reflecting on current interactions between environmental psychology and sustainability science and how researchers in these disciplines can further collaborative for sustainability transformation.


In the Leverage Points project, we’ve had many conversations about shallow vs. deep leverage points: interventions at shallow leverage points often lead to little systemic change whereas interventions at deep leverage points have more transformational potential. But when talking about the role of environmental psychology in sustainability transformation, should we acknowledge and encourage further research on seemingly shallow leverage points?

At first glance, environmental psychology interventions are primarily focused on understanding and describing…

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Resilience 2017: Rising interest for a leverage points narrative?

Some nice observations by Maraja Riechers on the idea of leverage points and its possible importance in the future

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Maraja Riechers

At a big conference like Resilience 2017 in Stockholm last month, there are bound to be many emerging topics and interesting links to one’s own work. However, I was positively surprised by the generally warm response to our Leverage Points for Sustainability project. My colleagues and I left the conference with the feeling that the concept of leverage points is likely to become more important over the next couple of years. From dinner table talks to explicit Leverage Point-themed sessions such as: Pathways and leverage points for transformative change chaired by Ryan Plummer, Donella Meadows’ concept of leverage points seemed to generate deep interest and genuine fascination. Those discussions showed me that diverse research on leverage points is already underway, with varying focus. The themes of finding leverage points for transformational change covered biodiversity, the Water-Energy-Food-Nexus, food systems and many more. Discussions ranged from personal inner transformation…

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Empathy: The cutting edge of sustainability science?

Some nice impressions on Resilience 2017 by Rebecca Freeth, also at our Faculty at Leuphana

Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation

By Rebecca Freeth

I’ve been interested in the Resilience Alliance for many years. I’ve been impressed by the coherence of their conceptual work. This has been a luminous example of natural and social scientists meaningfully bringing their work together. When I travelled from South Africa to Germany in late 2015 to take up my PhD post at Leuphana, my suitcase proved to be many kilograms overweight. I reluctantly extracted one book after the next. But Panarchy stayed in my suitcase.

Since arriving here, and taking up my role as a formative accompanying (FAR) researcher in the team , I’ve stumbled across the work of John Parker and Ed Hackett. They have done a fascinating job of tracking the Resilience Alliance, particularly during the ‘island time’ years. In fact Parker and Hackett’s work is not dissimilar to mine here with Leverage Points, although they are outsiders whereas I am in the…

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Resilience 2017: Opening plenary

Today, “Resilience 2017” started with a joint presentation by Carl Folke and Katrina Brown. I was intrigued by the idea of a joint presentation – outlining what has been achieved in resilience science so far, and what some of the future frontiers might be.

Resilience, Calle explained, was a highly dynamic concept, capturing the ability to live with change – both gradual and rapid. Related to this then are the notions of adaptability versus transformation; where you either keep things going the way they are, or change things fundamentally.

Calle argued that transformation was increasingly necessary so that we come in tune with the Earth System and remain within planetary boundaries. While on the one hand there are many challenges – with increasing variance or “flickering” sending us warning signals that things might change in major ways in the near future – Carl emphasized that there were also important opportunities. Most of these, in turn, relate to social change; changing social norms, values, institutions and mindsets.

Kate then picked up these ideas, and reflected on how social aspects had increasingly entered resilience thinking. Kate’s presentation focused on 4 + 2 times the letter “P”.

She started with a focus on people. People, she argued were the critical, active agents in social-ecological systems. That said, poverty was one of the big barriers to people’s agency. Kate also highlighted that resilience thinking has prominently entered (and is sometimes becoming mainstream) in development arenas – providing opportunities to bring more dynamic perspectives into development scholarship and practice. Power and politics were the next issue Kate picked up. In this context, social resistance comes up as an important notion – that is, people working to disrupt status quo systems, thus representing an opportunity for social change. The fourth “P” relates to place. Indeed, place is central to understanding resilience; it relates to people’s rootedness in physical locations, with implications for their mobility and management of natural resources.

Both Calle and Kate then highlighted some of their key points. Calle’s were:

  1. Humanity is part of the biosphsere – we’re not just lined but intertwined
  2. Our situation is about global social-ecological change – not just climate change
  3. We need to think about the future of people as part of Earth – not just the environment
  4. A resilient biosphere is the basis for development, wellbeing, and health
  5. Transformation to global sustainability is necessary, possible, and desirable

Two key frontiers that Kate pointed out were first “perspective taking: empathy”. What does it mean to be human? To be part of a social-ecological system? Could empathy building with the non-human world help us live more sustainably with non-human species, and with “others” in our own species?

Kate’s final point was “practice” – the actual putting into place resilience research and its findings. This, in turn, raised a whole lot of difficult questions for how we ought to engage with the world as researchers; and how we need to question quite deeply our ways of dealing with others, reflecting on our methods, but even on our emotions. Research, Kate argued, needed to be done differently, so we can better support the transition to sustainability; but also acknowledging more fully our roles as researchers in the process.

Calle finally concluded by calling for a New Renaissance – a growing, but deep recognition that we need to wake up to the fact that we need to live differently with and on the planet that supports us. On this basis, biosphere stewardship, was a necessary approach to remain within planetary boundaries, while working to improve human wellbeing.

Paper recommendation: Local food sovereignty for global food security

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to recommend a new paper by my colleagues Julia Leventon and Josefine Laudan.

Leventon, J. and Laudan, J. (2017). Local food sovereignty for global food security? Highlighting interplay challenges. Geoforum 85, 23-26. (LINK)

In a nutshell, the paper addresses some largely under-recognised challenges related to food sovereignty. For example, if every location or community is sovereign, then might it not be possible that one locality negatively influences another? And how does the focus on “local” sovereignty relate to national initiatives? Can a series of local initiatives be meaningfully scaled up to nations? And then, might it not be possible that different nations affect one another negatively through their strategies of national sovereignty?

These kinds of questions are tricky, and to some (me included) it feels that the food sovereignty narrative has avoided them a bit to date.

Julia and Josefine, in their new paper, suggest to tackle questions such as these through using a framework of institutional interplay. As examples (as shown in the figure below), one might ask, how do different local food sovereignty institutions within one country influence one another? How do local scale food sovereignty institutions interact with national level institutions? How do institutions related to food sovereignty relate to one another across countries?

The answers won’t always be straightforward, and I don’t see this new paper as the final solution — but rather, it’s a refreshing perspective and a suggestion for how to tackle some of the institutional complexity that inevitably arises when working across multiple scales and governance levels, especially when “sovereignty” is held as a central goal of different (interacting) institutions.


Rethinking for sustainability: a prelude

By Dr Liz Clarke and David P. M. Lam, Leuphana University Lüneburg

At the heart of our efforts to make the shift to a sustainable world is the process of rethinking. Rethinking what is important to us, how we should live, what makes us happy, what ‘nature’ means to us, of questioning the very foundations of our assumptions, beliefs, values, and rules, all of which make up the fabric of how we understand the world. And what is sustainability if not an idea, an aspiration, a way of rethinking?

A few weeks ago, we facilitated a workshop in Sighisoara, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains and within sight of the towers and rooftops of the ancient birthplace of the legendary Count Dracul (or Vlad the Impaler as he was known to his fearful Transylvanian countrymen and women).

With participants from various Non-Governmental Organisations in Southern Transylvania we did some of this rethinking. All of these participants are engaged in change – change for sustainability, better livelihoods, and a better future. They are focusing on a wide range of projects – from protecting communal grazing rights, preserving the unique Transylvanian hay meadows, preserving biodiversity, restoring heritage buildings, promoting sustainable tourism, improving livelihoods, to creating sustainable businesses.

Over the past few years, they have developed an inspiring common future vision: Balance Brings Beauty. This vision incorporates sustainable livelihoods, where tradition and nature are both valued, as well as aesthetics and wellbeing, which draws visitors to Transylvania in droves.

We sat in a hotel surrounded by some of the most committed and motivated people in the province, and we asked them to look deep within at their foundational thinking to understand what drives them to dedicate so much of their energies to this vision.

The answers were not surprising but very salient. Driving all of them was their passion, their ideas and their belief in a better future. They talked about the importance of empowerment and self-esteem, of the uniqueness of their culture and natural environment, the value of history and tradition, of happiness, fun and love. One participant said, “Without this uniqueness, I will lose my interest and love”. Improving the local economy was mentioned but as a means to an end – to create happier, safer, and more secure lives.

This positions the people of Southern Transylvania as firmly connected and integrated with this unique landscape and also with each other. What did we learn from the workshop? The journey to Balance Brings Beauty is a long one – there are many more years ahead. But rethinking is a collective and collaborative process, and happens when a group of engaged and passionate people come together to share their passion, ideas, and love for their culture and natural environment.