Translational training for tomorrow’s environmental scientists



Environmental science exists to seek solutions to problems related to human-nature interactions. Unfortunately, in many cases, environmental research findings are not effectively used because scientists are not able to convey their knowledge effectively to policy makers and the public, and/or because the questions they address are not directly linked to the answers stakeholders need. To address this issue, Schlesinger (2010) called for development of a “translational ecology” that would be understandable and usable by decision-makers, interest groups, and citizens. A barrier to usable science is that researchers are not usually trained to be translational. We convened a multi-disciplinary group of scholars to identify a comprehensive pedagogical approach for training doctoral students to be translational scientists. From this work has emerged a list of 53 skills, content areas, and dispositional attributes that lead to translational research in environmental science, as well as a set of instructional approaches that can be used to build those competencies. Future work will identify examples of how instructional activities can be linked to competencies to provide accessible tools and activities in support of a “community of practice” whose work enhances social-ecological resilience through translational environmental science.


Translational ecology Graduate education Social-ecological systems Usable science 


At its very root, environmental science is about solving problems. Widespread concern about the effects of contemporary human activities on nature and human well-being sparked a new applied science merging ecology, chemistry, hydrology, political science, medicine, and other disciplines in search of improvements that could mitigate the negative effects of human activities and sustain natural systems. In other words, environmental science is science that can translate to changes in human behavior, policies, and institutions.

Yet as Schlesinger (2010) observed in a 2010 editorial in the journal Science, “despite producing an enormous amount of new information, ecologists are often unable to convey knowledge effectively to the public and to policy makers. Unless the discoveries of ecological science are rapidly translated into meaningful actions, they will remain quietly archived while the biosphere degrades,” (p. 609). Borrowing a term from medicine, Schlesinger called for development of translational ecology, which “conveys ecological information accurately and in ways that stakeholders (including policy-makers, resource managers, public health officials, and the general public) can understand.” Although Schlesinger focused his argument on ecologists, his message can be applied more broadly to any of the environmental sciences.

In other words, the discoveries of environmental scientists—including but not limited to ecologists—too often are ignored or incompletely applied because the scientists have not made them accessible and understandable to non-scientists, or because the questions they address are not directly linked to the answers decision-makers need. This is not simply a matter of better one-way communication—making scientific findings and their practical applications understandable to lay persons. Rather, it is a matter of designing research so that it addresses the knowledge needs of those whom it is intended to benefit. Translational environmental science is not just about communicating better. It is also about listening better.

A first step toward creating a more translational environmental science is to understand why environmental science often has fallen short in this respect. One likely reason is that scientists act rationally, i.e., they behave as they are rewarded and as they are trained (Cronin 2005; Cyranoski et al 2011). Prestige in science is often greater for those who contribute theoretical advances than those who focus on finding practical solutions or communicating science to broader audiences (Stokes 2007). Therefore, doctoral programs in environmental sciences emphasize theories and methods for the conduct of research, and hiring decisions emphasize publications in peer-reviewed journals read almost entirely by other academics (Cronin 2005; Clauset et al 2015). As new fields of inquiry are developed, and new data-gathering and analytical methods emerge, new seminar classes are created and thesis/dissertation committees advise students to take them. Under the US model of graduate education, based more on coursework than in Europe (Coimbra Group 2012), programs of study can become overloaded with highly specialized courses about statistical approaches, spatial analysis, and emerging research findings—what Clark et al. (2011) called the “curricular smorgasbord.” There hardly seems to be room for students to also learn how to translate their science for non-scientist audiences, or toward applied outcomes.

Nonetheless, concern has been growing about the apparent disconnect between research and outcomes. The concern arose first in medicine (e.g., Marincola 2003; Mankoff et al. 2004), and the term “translational medicine” and “translational science” are most often seen in that context, but it is not limited to clinical and medical research. In his 2007 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Holdren (2008) urged scientists to dedicate 10 % of their professional time to work in ways that “increase the benefits of science for the human condition.” The National Science Foundation and other organizations place increasing importance on the “broader impacts” of research (Nadkarni and Stasch 2013). The field of translational medicine has emerged to counter a trend for researchers to move away from patient-oriented research (Zerhouni 2005). The Science Policy Assessment and Research on Climate program at the University of Colorado and Arizona State University has published a handbook (SPARC 2010) on what it calls “usable science,” which closely resembles what Schlesinger (2010) proposed although it tends to focus more specifically on science-based policy making. Other ecologists have argued for “use-inspired science” (Clark 2007) that might occur within an “engaged university” (Whitmer et al. 2010). Clearly, there is a market for translational environmental science. The broad question we are asking is: How might one achieve this?

With support from the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), we have convened a multi-disciplinary group of scholars to help answer that question. More specifically, given our assumption that a significant barrier to translational research is that environmental scientists are not trained to do it, we are pursuing three principal questions whose answers can guide transformative doctoral education on translational environmental science:
  • What knowledge or skill sets might a PhD environmental scientist need to do translational work?

  • Which learning processes are especially suitable for acquiring these skills and knowledge?

  • How might these be incorporated into US graduate education programs in an engaged university?

In this paper, we describe our process for pursuing these objectives and offer a progress report on the outcomes of our effort. Because we have been able to make the most progress on the first of the three questions outlined above, we will focus on that objective in our discussion.

Participants and process

SESYNC’s activities bring together diverse groups of scholars from the USA and around the world to identify solutions to challenging problems in socio-environmental systems. Teams organized around specific themes—in our case, learning to integrate across natural and social sciences—meet semi-annually for activities that can synthesize disparate methods, theories, data, and tools to generate novel insights. We organized a team (Table 1) of 12 individuals, including ourselves, who could bring together expertise on ecology, education, science policy, and environmental social science to build a pedagogical framework for translational science that would integrate natural and social sciences. Team members were recruited for their demonstrated interest in cross-disciplinary research as well as experience and expertise in education, community outreach, and/or policy. The team has met three times and has one more scheduled meeting in early 2016.
Table 1

Participants in the Translational Ecology team at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center



Specific expertise

Michelle Baker

Utah State University

Aquatic systems ecology

Gabriele Bammer

Australian National University

Science integration and implementation; epidemiology and public health

Carol Brandt

Temple University

Science education; anthropology

Mark Brunson

Utah State University

Social-ecological systems

Alexis Erwin

US Agency for International Development

Science and technology policy; plant-insect ecology

David Feldon

Utah State University

STEM education; instructional technology

Julia Gouvea

Tufts University

Science education; interdisciplinary education

Rebecca Jordan

Rutgers University

Environmental education and citizen science; ecology

Sunshine Menezes

University of Rhode Island

Science communication; biological oceanography

Mark Neff

Western Washington University

Science and society

Colibrí Sanfiorenzo-Barnhard

Community activist, Puerto Rico

Community outreach; agroecology

Eric Toman

Ohio State University

Social dimensions of natural resources and climate

The term “translational ecology” quickly took hold within the ecological science community after the appearance of Schlesinger’s (2010) editorial. For that reason, our group has chosen for now to retain use of that term even though we also apply it to a wider spectrum of disciplines that work alongside ecologists to address socio-environmental problems. A key first step at our initial meeting was to create a working definition of translational ecology for purposes of our endeavor, as Schlesinger did not explicitly define it in his editorial.

The Cary Institute, where Schlesinger served as president, says the goal of translational ecology is “to describe the results of research in a way that people in the non-scientific world can understand” ( Subsequent to the publication of Schlesinger’s editorial, the senior author of this article began discussions about translational ecology with graduate students and with participants in a 2012 symposium at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Those interactions, as well as our own discussions, led our group at SESYNC to adopt a broader definition. We agreed that successful translation must operate in multiple directions—not only from scientists to public and policy makers, but also from public and policy makers to scientists, and among scientists in different disciplines. Working from the latter understanding, our team developed the following definition:

Translational ecology is boundary-spanning environmental science that leads to actionable research focused on maintaining or enhancing the resilience of social-ecological systems. Using an adaptive and iterative mode of inquiry, it extends beyond traditional scientific boundaries. It provides accessible tools and frameworks that allow exchanges of knowledge among ecologists and intended beneficiaries of their science, to promote mutual learning and a shared sense of its utility.

In addition to the science communication dimension emphasized by the Cary Institute, this definition includes dimensions of science policy and social-ecological systems science. It closely resembles, but is not identical to, the usable science concept (SPARC 2010) as well as the modes of inquiry known as transdisciplinary research (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008) and integration and implementation sciences (I2S) (Bammer 2005).

Subsequently, we refined our vision for what our team would set out to accomplish: “to support a community of practice engaged in actionable research to enhance social-ecological resilience through collaborative work across boundaries. We will do this by providing accessible tools and activities to develop core competencies for the practice of translational ecology.” In other words, we hope not only to suggest and disseminate elements of a graduate curriculum for translational ecology, but also to maintain an Internet presence for sharing those ideas with educators and interested others. Ultimately, we would hope that other educators and practitioners would use the website to share their own ideas, experiences, and teaching activities to continue building a framework for translational environmental science education.

What should a “translational” ecologist know and do?

The most concrete product of our deliberations to date has been a list of 53 core competencies that cover the widest possible range encompassed by our definition of translational ecology. These were developed over the first two meetings of our working group through a process that included an idiosyncratic review of articles suggested by team members as being representative of scholarship on topics such as science policy, public understanding of science, science communication, sociology of science, team science, and university STEM education; sharing of observations based on the cumulative decades of experience of our team members; and refinement at our second meeting via group review of a preliminary list that had been developed six months earlier. The competencies are presented as student tasks that can be assessed qualitatively (e.g., can the student articulate how power dynamics affect relationships among scientists, stakeholders, and policy makers?) or as dispositions that can be indirectly observed through the behaviors a student exhibits in simulated activities or actual engagement in translational activities and collaborations. While the list of competencies is largely complete, we plan one more round of review before we declare it “final”; therefore, rather than showing the complete list in its current form, we offer examples in Table 2.
Table 2

Examples of core competencies to be covered in graduate training for translational environmental science


Theme 1

Social-ecological systems

Theme 2

Communication across boundaries (with beneficiaries, stakeholders, other scientists)

Theme 3

Engaging with beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other scientists


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 (incl. policy) in ecological and social systems.

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.

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.


Identify and scope translational ecology problems and research methods.

Use a multi-modal approach in communication and data collection (human and non-human data).

Evaluate alternative justifications, claims, and arguments being made about a problem.

Develop and interpret visual representations of one or more data sets.

Adapt communication to information needs, decision-making constraints, and time scales of different knowledge users.

Analyze boundaries to determine what is included and excluded, central or peripheral, to different audiences, and use different rhetorical strategies as appropriate

Identify the range of participants, perspectives, and expertise necessary to include in order to address a problem (scoping).

Collaboratively create alternative scenarios and define the costs/benefits/risks of each.

Exhibit professional behavior appropriate to the community and setting.

Collaboratively identify problems, produce research questions, and perform data collections, analyses, and actions with diverse stakeholders, beneficiaries, and scientists.

Dispositional attributes

Willingness to embrace complexity

Interest in continual learning

Embrace multiple contexts and vantages

Willingness to take a humble perspective to one’s communication practice (i.e., a true two-way street where one is a talker and listener)

Willingness to interact with potential knowledge users

Value the legitimacy of multiple problem framings and value schemes.

Sensitivity to the need to act prior to knowledge at times

Appreciate non-formal knowledge and experience

The competencies are categorized into three types: content knowledge, skills, and dispositional attributes. Content knowledge includes institutional factors, concepts, definitions, and theories that define the need for translational ecology as well as factors that will influence its success or failure to achieve desired research and social-interaction goals. The identified skills provide the capacity to engage in best practices related to translational science including context recognition, data analysis, communication, and engagement with non-scientist stakeholders. Some of these are by no means limited to translational ecology (e.g., using and interpreting statistics, or exhibiting professional behavior), but the team believes they are vital to successful practice of translational ecology. Dispositional attributes describe habits of mind and of interaction with stakeholders that can increase the likelihood of successful outcomes. To further distinguish between competencies in this extensive list, we classified them as falling primarily into any of three themes: social-ecological systems; communication across boundaries; and engaging with beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other scientists.

Work on the pedagogical framework continues. Addressing the second question (“Which learning processes are especially suitable for acquiring these skills and knowledge?”) began at our second meeting and was the principal topic of our third session, although work is not yet complete. This task entails matching sets of competencies to specific activities that may be especially well suited to teaching those competencies. The activities include individual endeavors (build a data set, prepare an “Ignite” talk, interview researchers from different disciplines) and group endeavors (join a citizen science project, participate in a journal club, engage in a role-playing simulation). A final product from this exercise will be a set of modules that are linked to competencies and set into a translational context. Included in each module will be a description of exemplary activities covering multiple themes and/or competency types; links between activities and identified competencies; a description of how learning might be assessed, including a rubric; and a small list of resources to assist educators in implementing the activity.

To address our third question (“How might these activities be incorporated into US graduate education programs in an engaged university?”), we are preparing a set of recommendations about graduate program structures that will facilitate inclusion of translational science training. A survey of students, educators, and administrators is being developed in support of the recommendations. Before the team’s work is completed, we will engage with practitioners in the public and nonprofit sectors to review our competencies and learn which are considered most useful in making hiring decisions.

The outputs of the SESYNC effort will be presentations of the final competency list, activity modules, and institutional recommendations through peer-reviewed literature, workshops at one or more professional science meetings, and the website that will be the virtual “home” of a translational ecology community of practice. We do not anticipate that any academic institution will adopt all of the curricular activities we suggest, nor set out deliberately to instill each of the competencies we have identified. Even if a minority of environmental science graduate students can demonstrate a significant subset of these knowledge areas, skills, and dispositions, we believe the outcome for the practice of environmental science is a workforce more prepared to develop usable solutions to some of our world’s most pressing problems.



This work was supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environment and SocietyUtah State UniversityLoganUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUtah State UniversityLoganUSA

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