It has become commonplace in recent years for scientists to argue, as Schlesinger (2010) did, that ecologists must learn to engage more effectively with stakeholders if our insights and discoveries are to have value for society. Lubchenco (2017) recently called on environmental scientists to modify our reward structures and educational programs in ways that can “train, encourage, and support students to be better communicators and more engaged.” A key question, then, is: Which skills, concepts, and dispositions should be the focus of training, encouragement, and support? To address this question, a multi-disciplinary group of scholars was convened at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center to identify (1) what knowledge or skill sets a PhD environmental scientist might need to do translational work; (2) learning processes that may be especially suitable for acquiring these skills and knowledge; and (3) strategies for incorporating these pedagogies into a contemporary graduate education program.
We define translational ecology as “boundary-spanning environmental science that leads to actionable research focused on maintaining or enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems.” It uses broadly accessible models and tools that span scientific disciplines, enabling co-production of knowledge by ecologists and intended users. In order to pursue such research, knowledge is required in three areas: social-ecological systems, communication across boundaries, and engagement with stakeholders as well as scientists. Depending on the context of a particular translational project, skills required may include holistic problem identification, conceptual modeling, issue framing, facilitation and conflict management, and scenario development. Translational scientists must be willing to embrace complexity, comfortable interacting with potential knowledge-users including those who may be hostile to perceived consequences of scientific knowledge, and able to appreciate non-formal knowledge and experience.
It is unlikely that any educational program can cover all of the potentially valuable skills, concepts, or dispositions. Translational ecology must compete for attention with other new subject areas from advanced statistics to GIS to data visualization. However, failure to at least introduce these translational ideas to future scientists can leave them ill-prepared to face the challenges of conducting science that meets the needs of society and the environment.