How should we train the next generation of applied ecologists?

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

If you’d like to share your opinion on this matter or have an idea for a follow-up post, leave a comment below or email us.

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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3 thoughts on “How should we train the next generation of applied ecologists?

  1. What would help the most from elementary school through graduate level is to a focus on natural history, to allow passion once again in the study of ecology, and to focus on healing nature as a way of healing ourselves. Since the 1970s we’ve studied nature as a machine, quantified everything, and removed emotion to make it more objective. It’s time for a change. Most students go into ecology because they love nature. Once in school every last bit of passion is squeezed out for the sake of something else. Let’s make ecology the study of nature again. Let’s get outside and teach others the reciprocal miracle of healing the Earth to heal the epidemics and devastation of our time.


  2. I agree that there is a need for rethinking higher education system. I also agree that we need to put more emphasis on nature love, particularly because students are mostly urban, instead of rural. However, we need to be aware that the pace of changes starts with teachers and the interactions they provoke, more than with students. They are open to attend different courses extra but they need to be aware that ecology as a specialist must be different of an environmentalist. In many societies those differences are not well established and this can be a danger. For us, ecologists, to be heard we need to spread a kind of conduct rules that we have launch during EEFLisbon 2019, naming that “The responsibilities of ecologists” that are waiting for the feedback of all community. We challenge you to read and disseminate it and help to improve the document, sending your comments to:
    More informations at:


  3. This is a great topic, thanks for putting on the discussion table!

    I left academia and government research for a R&D position in scientific manufacturing and commercial industry. It was one of the most gratifying positions I’ve held to date in my career. I interacted with peers in my field of training (marine science, biological oceanography, microbial ecology), and mentored students directly. I was invited to speak with a group of doctoral candidates at a Biomedical Engineering Graduate program 2 years ago. The number one question that came up was: “What skills are you (companies) looking for?” These students are eager to apply their academic training for a non-academic career pathway. That means we / institutions / employers need to respond to their interest with adequate training and mentoring.

    One such model is what I observed, a year worth of rotation experiences. The medical field does this, why can’t we do this in scientific fields like ecology etc. It’s simply not enough to put science blinders on and move ahead. In this climate and economy, scientists need to provide timely and validated efforts for informed decision-making.

    I can think of a short list of skill sets that are imperative for a scientist in industry. There is a definite need for academic job-training and structured programs with commercial (tech-incubator) partnerships that provide the next generation of scientists with real-world outcomes. Thanks for this discussion.


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