Seeing the wood for the trees: the value of interdisciplinary work for conservation

Seeing the wood for the trees: the value of interdisciplinary work for conservation

Many of us working in environmental conservation have come from the natural sciences, whether it be from ecology, botany or another related discipline.

And as natural scientists, we love asking focused questions and utilising our familiar, usually quantitative, methods to find answers. We love the process, the fieldwork, the analysis and we sometimes get lost in our study systems.

And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We’re scientists and so we love science. Go figure. Yet for those working in conservation, sometimes it is worth taking a step back and considering a non-scientific perspective. Or even just a non-ecological one, for example.

Sometimes it is easy to forget that the motivation to conserve ecosystems is not unique to our own discipline. Indeed, researchers from sociology to psychology, and economics to marketing, are already trying to save our species using the methods they know best. After all, conservation is often more a people problem than anything else.

Conservation psychology is one example of a field of emerging, multidisciplinary conservation research. This area investigates how people think and feel about conservation, including their relationships with wildlife and the environment, and how nature can benefit their mental health and wellbeing. By understanding how people think, communications and management strategies, for example, can be more efficiently designed and implemented.

Image by Linda Xu / Unsplash

There is an inherent value in disciplines working together. How do we manage human-wildlife conflicts? How can we convince the public to care about conservation? How can we best prioritise the use of funds? Natural scientists can’t answer these crucial questions alone, but neither can social scientists without insight from the former.

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work involves synthesising knowledge and methods from different disciplines, or engaging in collaborations with experts in another field. Academics and students can actively pursue basic understanding in a new field, or collaborate to help broaden their research (e.g. incorporating community attitudes into conservation plans).

The growing amount of research into human-wildlife conflicts provides another sound example of how integrating both the natural and social sciences can result in practical, well-rounded solutions. Working alongside social scientists, who have the skills and knowledge to properly survey the attitudes of people involved, can result in a wealth of information. This can allow for more precise and targeted measures for preventing and mitigating conflicts. Hence, interdisciplinary work can result in benefits not only to the wildlife of the region, but also to the people.

The value of such work cannot be overstated, as it provides an example of how conservationists can work with communities rather than ‘against’ them. Such projects must become more commonplace for conservation success; we can’t go on indefinitely without significant public support.

Of course, there are reasons why interdisciplinary work is uncommon. Trying to understand a disparate discipline can be utterly overwhelming, intellectually and emotionally.

There can be difficulties choosing methodologies when working with disparate disciplines or experts. There is also the fear of counteracting all you’ve been told before: become an expert in a tiny field, pick one thing and be good at it. Instead, you often do the opposite: you read broadly.

Yet as it often does, the hard work will usually pay off. It simply becomes more important than ever to clearly define your research question and context, and to know when you are out of your depth and require an expert.

Considering more than one area of research can make your work more useful or practical. For example, an interdisciplinary approach may be more flexible, allowing the ability to focus directly on solving problems, and consider multiple solutions (e.g. environment and human conflicts could be managed through ecological and social means).

Perhaps most importantly, interdisciplinary work can provide a revealing look at the big picture. The actual problem might suddenly become clear. And in the end, what most of us are aiming for is a change to the big picture.

Precise and focused discipline-specific work will always be vital for our ongoing growth in understanding. But we shouldn’t be afraid of strong, thoughtful interdisciplinary research, where either working together or in new areas can uncover new knowledge or ways to solve conservation problems.

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