What makes a translational ecologist? Part 3: Dispositional attributes

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 / Part 2: Skills / Part 3: Dispositional attributes (this blog post)

This is the third and final blog post considering competencies to make ecologists more effective in informing and supporting policy and practice change (see the right sidebar for links to all four related blog posts on translational ecology). In other words these are the competencies underpinning a new discipline of translational ecology.

The two previous blog posts examined the knowledge and skills 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.

This blog post uses the same three areas to examine the dispositional attributes required.

What are dispositional attributes?

Each person’s internal cognitive and moral qualities are collectively known as dispositions. Research in professional development, at least in some fields, affirms the importance of alignment between personal and professional dispositions in career satisfaction.

Dispositional attributes needed to deal with socio-ecological systems

In order to deal effectively with socio-ecological systems, translational ecologists need:

  • Willingness to embrace complexity.
  • Interest in continual learning.
  • Ability to embrace multiple contexts and vantages.

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

To undertake effective communication across boundaries, translational ecologists need:

  • Willingness to take a humble perspective to one’s communication practice (ie., a true two-way street where one is a talker and listener).
  • Willingness to interact with potential knowledge users.
  • To value the need to train beneficiaries to carry on suggested actions.

Dispositional attributes needed to engage with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists

For effective engagement with beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other scientists, translational ecologists need:

  • To value the legitimacy of multiple problem framings and value schemes.
  • Sensitivity to the need to act prior to knowledge at times.
  • To appreciate non-formal knowledge and experience.
  • Willingness to interact with potential knowledge users.
  • Pragmatism without dogmatism or nihilism.
  • Appreciation of the best possible and least worst in both outcomes and processes.
  • To recognize ethical issues associated with engaging beneficiaries to take actions that may have unanticipated negative consequences.

The dispositional attributes needed by a translational ecologist are summarised in the following table.


While it is relatively easy to highlight the social and ecological benefits for practitioners who carry such attributes, it is more difficult to develop teaching modules with assessments for such dispositional attributes.

Certainly it is not difficult to imagine experiences that might foster the development of these essential values and viewpoints. Students can engage in authentic cases that feature multiple vantages. Discussions could explicitly focus on empathy as well as the opportunities and challenges of equity and inclusion in practices of conservation.

But how do we assess growth in these areas? Do we inspect for the growth and development of ideas that reflect the attributes we highlighted?

More importantly, do we feel comfortable assigning low rankings for lack of development, or lack of appreciation, of certain values? Can this be done in a fair and equitable manner, or do we risk a failure to embrace the identity and diversity of our students?

It is difficult to imagine encouraging students to pursue a profession in translational ecology with an under-appreciation for the nuances of successful social engagement and negotiation. Instruction, therefore, should emphasize these dispositions.

Yet, the question remains: should standards and their associated assessments feature such attributes and if so, how?

As educators grapple with providing students with the concepts, connections, and skills to navigate careers and civic life, research and governing councils such as the National Research Council in the United States work to articulate frameworks and standards to aid in this process.

What is striking, however, is that a quick search of the documents relating to the ecological and scientific aspects of sustainability education produced by such bodies reveals a lack of attention to dispositional attributes to be targeted by educational practice.

What do you think? Do you have experience teaching and assessing dispositional attributes? Are there other essential dispositional attributes that you would add?

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 Rebecca Jordan and 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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