Senior Editor, Nathalie Pettorelli, shares her thoughts on higher education and how we can better support future generations of applied ecologists.

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Our world, whether we look at climate, nature, culture or technology, is changing fast. Some of these changes are positive, but not all of them, with others threatening people’s livelihood, health and wellbeing. The drastic loss of biological diversity has much to do with these growing threats on people’s lives, with, for example, the continuous loss of species and habitats meaning that many of the services we get from nature, such as clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration, pollination and pest controls are being eroded or lost.

Addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss; repairing the ecological damages made; highlighting wildlife and landscape management options that work for nature and people; supporting species, ecological communities and ecosystems as they try to cope with global environmental change – these are the foundations of what applied ecology is about. But are we adequately equipping the next generation of ecologists with the skills and knowledge needed to tackle these challenges? Or are our training philosophy, approaches and structures not evolving fast enough?

Do subjects like economics need a greater focus?

In many respects, higher education training in ecology has changed little over the past decades. Staff and students are still divided around faculties and departments, which themselves tend to focus on a given discipline – topics such as chemistry, physics, or programming rarely make up part of the ecology curriculum. Similarly, the distinction between hard and soft science is still alive and kicking, with little effort to introduce young ecologists to the fundamentals of social sciences, economics, or law. Ecology courses still tend to be delivered primarily by staff from natural science faculties, while largely attracting students with a biological background. Technology is still not very well integrated with scientific education, even though these two are intrinsically linked.

On the other hand, there is a growing emphasis among research funders on impact and producing science that matters to society. Being able to do so requires, among other things, an understanding of society; how systems work, how people work and why they chose to do something even if it doesn’t appear to be optimal. Similarly, there is growing recognition that ecological research is carried out in socioecological systems, where humans can’t be ignored. This is particularly true for research aiming to challenge current environmental practices for enhanced ecological benefits, which primarily occurs in or near production landscapes.

Furthermore, technology is increasingly supporting the collection of ecological data and contributing to broaden our understanding of the natural world, with the use of drones, satellite data, GPS collars or camera traps becoming the norm. These technological developments, which in some cases require a good understanding of key principles in physics to be adequately used, are allowing us to slowly fill current data gaps and increase the diversity of geographic locations underpinning the construction of our ecological knowledge. Connections between the abiotic and biotic world are moreover increasingly understood as drivers of ecological interactions and processes, leading to a clear need for ecologists to have a basic understanding of chemistry.

students working together
Do students need more opportunities to work and collaborate across departments and disciplines?

Admittedly, one cannot train everyone in everything, and there is limits to what students can absorb during their time at university. Discussions on the benefits and disadvantages of specialist versus generalist training have been going on for decades, but one may argue they never mattered as much as right now. There’s little doubt that interdisciplinarity is key for tackling the major environmental challenges of today, but we haven’t yet fully translated this statement into significant changes in our training strategies.

For ecology to successfully inform the environmental strategy of tomorrow, we do need to ensure that future generations of applied ecologists can converse with other disciplines, and easily form collaborations with experts outside their fields. This fluency and access to a wide network must be established early on through, among other things, a higher diversity of disciplines being taught during the formal study as well as a higher level of social mixing between students trained in different disciplines. Expectations of what ecologists should know about also need to be reviewed, putting a higher focus on competencies over knowledge. This would likely increase the diversity of people choosing to develop a career in applied ecology; itself promoting creativity and innovation in the field.

Organising lectures and practicals in geography, sociology, economics, law, coding and conservation technologies as part of the training in ecology are important first steps, but these are far from enough. Courses should really be embedded in multiple faculties and aim to recruit a diversity of students with varied scientific backgrounds. Continuous training in key scientific disciplines (mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, computer sciences) should be the norm to support future exchanges with other disciplines. Projects offered to students should demonstrate some level of interdisciplinarity, for them to be able to practically relate their formal training to their first research experience. Employers of applied ecologists should have stronger involvement and/or stronger links with the courses that train their future employees.

The importance of rethinking our higher education system goes beyond the need to adequately train the applied ecologists of tomorrow. The pace of changes in terms of how many we are, how we define ourselves, and how we interact with others and the world, means that the number of global challenges to solve is on the rise. Addressing these challenges requires, among other things, good collaborative and communication skills, flexible thinking, creativity and innovation. Higher education could do better at promoting and developing these skills by providing a learning environment that reflects the intricacies and complexities of the problems we face.

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