Many years ago I was interviewing for a job, sort of (but that is a different story). A famous evolutionary biologist at an esteemed University (not naming names) asked me why I did research on so many different things, and was I worried about being a dilettante, superficially engaged in many things, deeply engaged in nothing. I was surprised, offended, and set on my heels by the question. I answered the question poorly. However, I now appreciate that experience because I have reflected on this dozens of times throughout my career specifically because of this traumatic event.
We are now in a world where the words “interdisciplinary”, “transdisciplinary”, “boundary” and “translational” are combined with “science” to convey some measure of integration across fields for more effective science directed toward some outcome. As scientists we are typically missing the connection of delivering science in a way to effectively inform decisions. The traditional model of science did not, as a rule, define that translation of science into action as a job responsibility for the scientist. With increased public accountability toward using the best available science, better public access to science, and thinned staffing at most state and federal agencies, it appears to be increasingly important for scientists to make that step; to connect our research discoveries to decisions that resource managers make.
Of course one model for this, and one that still works well in many cases, is the traditional request for proposals (RFP): a management agency has an information need, they launch and RFP to answer that need, the science gets done, answers the need and that agency deploys that information.
However, the differential pace of information and decisions often dictates that the decision maker needs to call upon a scientist, or a scientific community to act as experts on a decision that is needed over a time frame that precludes obtaining specialized technical information specifically related to that decision.
Therein lies the need, I believe, for researchers to be translational, or transdisciplinary. We need to be able to understand the decision process and context sufficiently to deliver a meaningful answer to a genuine scientific question in support of potentially controversial or contested decisions. Or at least to meaningfully participate int he dialogue. But what kind of translational skills does that require? Many emerging MS programs suggest that they can build these translational individuals by augmenting ecological training with law, economics, social sciences, communication skills, and policy knowledge (e.g., UCSB's Bren School).
Typical PhD programs rely on deep understanding of a discipline augmented by individual development of translational attributes that interest them (e.g., politics). That seems pretty inefficient. On two occasions (Muir and Schwartz 2009, Blickely et al 2013*), I have argued that students need to take ownership of these challenges and seek out the skills that suit them for their career objectives. But, which skills.
So, here is a fun exercise. Imagine a spider diagram (see the figure below).
Define a 5 point scale as follows:
0. No demonstrable skill
1. Knowledge in a specialized skill
(e.g., under law, you know something about the Endangered Species Act)
2. Broad skill knowledge
(e.g., ESA and what NEPA is and how they are deployed, but maybe not Clean Water Act)
3. Broad skill knowledge and some practical experience
(e.g., know the laws and have participated in the application of one or more.)
4. Deep knowledge
(e.g., have an advance degree in the field, a JD)
5. Deep, deep knowledge and practical experience
(e.g., an advanced degree and worked in the field through research or policy application)
Now, thinking about yourself as the fully developed professional (e.g., 10 years post your final degree), what do you think would be a good mix of skills for you as a conservation researcher? Bars on the spider diagram represent disciplines that people may identify as skills in translational ecology. You can answer on these, but feel free to add a branch, under the caveat that branches should represent broad areas (e.g., Communications) and not specific applications of an area (public speaking).
With that caveat, here is how I see myself:
Tell me where you are, or would like to be! Complete it, and email your answers to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). I will see if I can integrate this information into our translational working group effort on defining transdisciplinary skills.
Happy Holidays. Expect to hear back from us around the New Year.
Muir, M. J., and M. W. Schwartz. 2009. Academic Research Training for a Nonacademic Workplace: a Case Study of Graduate Student Alumni Who Work in Conservation. Conservation Biology 23:1357-1368.
Blickely, J.L., Deiner, K., Garbach, K., Lacher, I., Meek, M.H., Porensky, L.M., Wilkerson, M.L., Winford, E.M., Schwartz, M.W. 2013. A Graduate student’s guide to necessary skill sets for conservation careers. Conservation Biology 27: 24-34.
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