What makes a translational ecologist? Part 1: Knowledge

By the Translational Ecology Group 

Translational Ecology Group (participants)


Four related blog posts on translational ecology:

Introduction to translational ecology

What makes a translational ecologist – Part 1: Knowledge (this post) / Part 2: Skills / Part 3: Dispositional attributes

What does it take for ecologists to become more effective in informing and supporting policy and practice change? What are the competencies underpinning the new discipline of translational ecology? What needs to be covered in graduate courses on translational ecology?

A group of us, supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), have been addressing these questions. As well as defining translational ecology, we have developed a matrix covering relevant knowledge, skills and, what we call, dispositional attributes or personal characteristics. We deal with each of these in four related blog posts, as described in the right sidebar.

We argue that knowledge is required in three major areas:

  1. Socio-ecological systems
  2. Communication across boundaries, with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists
  3. Engagement with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists.

Knowledge needed to deal with socio-ecological systems

This knowledge goes beyond what is traditionally taught to undergraduate and graduate students. It enables translational ecologists to:

  • Describe how systems theory is applied to ecological and social systems.
  • Identify and articulate ecological and social pressures/drivers, outputs, feedbacks, mechanisms, and sustainability processes across space and time.
  • Identify institutional/organizational processes of change (including policy change) in ecological and social systems.
  • Describe how decision science/theory can be used to explain problems in ecological and social systems.

Knowlege needed to communicate across boundaries, with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists

Translational ecology necessarily requires working with others, with the first step in effective collaboration being the ability to understand each other. This is a multi-way, not a one-way, process and is much more than traditional science communication.

In practice, the focus of communication will generally be around a specific ecological problem, such as clean-up of a toxic spill in a rural community. Translational ecologists must be able to communicate with everyone who has a major interest in the problem. These people can be usefully divided into three groups.

First are those most affected by the problem who will benefit from an effective way forward in addressing it (beneficiaries). In our example this would be all the people living in the community.

Second are other stakeholders, including others affected by the problem or in a position to do something about it. In our example, this would include environmental regulators, businesses involved in clean-up of toxic spills, those responsible for the spill, visitors to the community and the media.

Third are the other scientists who have something to contribute to understanding and managing the problem. These will come from a range of disciplines, especially across the natural and social sciences. In our example they would include toxicologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, anthropologists, and political scientists.

Translational ecologists will therefore have requisite knowledge to:

  • Define translational ecology and explain its novelty and rationale.
  • Articulate how knowledge is shaped by epistemic aims, ideals, and reliable processes.
  • Identify values and experiences and how these might influence outcomes.
  • Articulate how information is subject to interpretation and use by people, groups or institutions.
  • Describe “best practices” in communication with diverse audiences, taking into account syntheses and framing, and being sensitive to trust, values, beliefs, and cultures.
  • Define components of effective communication—writing, speaking, multi-media, and listening—with diverse audiences.

Knowledge needed to engage with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists

The communication described above is a pre-requisite for effective engagement to understand and deal with the problem. Translational ecologists will therefore have requisite knowledge to:

  • Describe the science-action interface, including how science is used, or not used, in different policy and decision making settings.
  • Articulate how differential power dynamics influence beneficiary, stakeholder and scientist interactions.
  • Define components of negotiation, facilitation, and conflict management.
  • Define where and how to engage in decision processes and identify leverage points and policy windows.
  • Describe when, why, how, and with whom to engage in collaborative work.

The knowledge needed by a translational ecologist is summarised in the following table.


As will be evident, we argue that, for translational ecologists, effective practical skills need to be underpinned by relevant theory and concepts. For example, it is not enough to be able to negotiate effectively; translational ecologists must also know about the theory of negotiation. Of course, becoming highly proficient is more than could be achieved in a graduate course, but such courses need to lay the foundations for translational ecologists to build their knowledge (and skills) over their careers.

What do you think? Is there other essential knowledge that you would add? Do you teach courses that already cover some or all of these competencies? How applicable are competencies such as these to the environmental sciences more generally, and to other areas such as public health or international security?

Participants: These ideas are a product of the SESYNC Translation Ecology pursuit. The principal investigators were Mark W. Brunson and Michelle A. Baker, both from Utah State University.

Other participants were Gabriele Bammer (Australian National University), Carol Brandt (Temple University), Alexis Erwin (USAID), David Feldon (Utah State University), Rebecca Jordan (Rutgers University), Sunshine Menezes (Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, University of Rhode Island), Mark Neff (Western Washington University), Colibrí Sanfiorenzo-Barnhard (Grupos Ambientales Interdisciplinarios Aliados), Julia Svoboda Gouvea (Tufts University) and Eric Toman (Ohio State University.) This blog post was written by Gabriele Bammer on behalf of the group.


Photo (L-R): Front row – Carol Brandt, Eric Toman, David Feldon, Mark Brunson. Back row – Sunshine Menezes, Gabriele Bammer, Colibri Sanfioenzo-Barnhard, Mark Neff, Alexis Erwin, Michelle Baker and David Hawthorne from SESYNC.


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