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Interdisciplinarity can be interpreted broadly as an active, multi-faceted learning process between researchers from different disciplines to create a common ground for a special purpose. Interdisciplinary approaches are regarded as necessary in environmental research, especially in view of global environmental change. However, some argue there is a lack of genuine interdisciplinarity in environmental research. Polymaths can play a potentially important role in environmental research. Environmental polymaths can enhance the effectiveness of interdisciplinarity through their knowledge and understanding of different disciplinary languages, epistemologies and methodologies, and as such, should be acknowledged more explicitly in interdisciplinary discussions.
Interdisciplinary research has wide applicability to the environment and its management, and few areas can rival Brazilian Amazonia in terms of interdisciplinary challenges. Brazil's Ministry of Science and Technology currently makes interdisciplinary research an explicit priority, and to this end directs financing to large networks of researchers working in different institutions and fields. An impressive number of programmes support and carry out interdisciplinary research in the region, with varying success. Shifts in funding priorities are needed to maximize further advances.
In recent decades, the interconnectedness of history and ecology has received increasing attention. Although necessarily interdisciplinary, efforts to study this interconnectedness had their roots either in the humanities and social sciences or in the natural sciences: scholars have tried either to understand more about nature with the help of history, or, about human history with the help of natural phenomena. As a result, theoretical studies about the integration of ecology and history try to answer two relatively distinct questions: ‘why ecology matters in history’ and ‘why history matters in ecology’. This paper sets out to systematize current knowledge on the latter question and to highlight those issues that have so far received less attention. The arguments can be grouped into three major themes. First, history matters in ecology because it aids understanding of current patterns and processes in nature. Second, because it fosters better informed management and policy decisions; and third, because it places ecology and conservation in a wider interdisciplinary context. Besides dealing with the perspectives of ecologists and conservationists, this paper also includes material from historians, anthropologists and archaeologists, that is, from scholars whose primary interest does not lie in ecological investigations, but who have, nonetheless, embraced the need for the integration of ecology and history.
Working across knowledge-based research programmes, rather than institutional structures, should be central to interdisciplinary research. In this paper, a novel framework is proposed to facilitate interdisciplinary research, with the goals of promoting communication, understanding and collaborative work. Three core elements need to be addressed to improve interdisciplinary research: the types (forms and functions) of theories, the underlying philosophies of knowledge and the combination of research styles; these three elements combine to form the research programme. Case studies from sustainability science and environmental security illustrate the application of this research programme-based framework. This framework may be helpful in overcoming often oversimplified distinctions, such as qualitative/quantitative, deductive/inductive, normative/descriptive, subjective/objective and theory/practice. Applying this conceptual framework to interdisciplinary research should foster theoretical advances, more effective communication and better problem-solving in increasingly interdisciplinary environmental fields.
A quasi-experimental design was used to test the hypothesis that there will be a significant improvement in both coastal resource management (CRM) and human reproductive health (RH) outcomes by delivering these services in an integrated manner as opposed to delivering either in isolation. The CRM, RH and integrated CRM+RH interventions were tested in three island municipalities of Palawan. Pre-project (2001) and post-project (2007) measurements of dependent variables were gathered via biophysical and community household surveys. Regression analyses indicate the CRM+RH intervention generated higher impacts on human and ecosystem health outcomes compared to the independent CRM and RH interventions. Improvements in coral and mangrove conditions are attributed to the effects of protective management by collaborating peoples’ organizations. The same institutions managed RH activities that enabled contraceptive access and a significant decrease in the average number of children born to women in the study area. Other trends showing a significant reduction in income-poverty among young adults infer added value. To ensure long term sustainability of CRM gains and prevent over-use of coastal resources, integrated forms of management that engage communities in the simultaneous delivery of conservation and family planning services are needed.
The development of interdisciplinary approaches to environmental conservation is obviously related to interdisciplinary training in undergraduate and postgraduate conservation-oriented degree programmes. This paper therefore examines interdisciplinary training in environmental conservation, with a focus on conservation biology. The specific objectives are: (1) to analyse debates about the nature of ‘interdisciplinarity’ in conservation biology; (2) to examine the status of interdisciplinary training in current academic programmes in conservation biology; and (3) to make recommendations in terms of interdisciplinary or other non-natural science content that should be prioritized for inclusion in the curriculum. The term ‘interdisciplinarity’ has been used in relation to conservation training to refer to (1) any social science content; (2) vocational skills training; (3) integrative or practice-based exercises, sometimes with no indication of disciplinary content; (4) the (variously defined) ‘human dimensions’ of conservation, and (5) interaction between different academic disciplines (usually crossing the natural science–social science divide). In terms of training, the natural sciences have remained predominant in almost all reported academic programmes, but there now appears to be more coverage of non-natural science issues than previously. However the lack of consistency in the use of terms makes it difficult to assess progress. Further debate about curriculum development in conservation would be aided greatly by recognizing the distinction between the different aspects of non-natural science training, and treating each of them in its own right. Most degree programmes in environment-related disciplines specialize to varying degrees either in the natural sciences or the social sciences, and a comprehensive programme covering both of these in depth is likely to be problematic. However, some understanding of different disciplinary perspectives is increasingly important in a career in environmental conservation, and it is argued that, as a minimum, a primarily natural science-based undergraduate programme in environmental conservation should include: (1) an introduction to social science perspectives on the environment; (2) basic training in social science methods, research design and science theory; (3) vocational skills training, to the extent that it can be built into existing curricular components; and (4) integrative problem-solving tasks that can be used in relation to any or all of the above. A similar list could be constructed for social science-based environmental degree programmes, incorporating some basic training in natural science perspectives. Postgraduate training programmes are more varied in what they aim to achieve in terms of disciplinary breadth; they can develop students’ existing specialist expertise, offer supplementary training to allow students to increase the disciplinary breadth of their expertise, or focus on the issue of interdisciplinarity itself.
Literature on environmental science and management endorses crossing boundaries between disciplines, types of organizations and countries for environmental conservation. A literature review on interdisciplinarity, interorganizational networks and international cooperation highlights their justifying rationales and strategic practices. Crossing boundaries implies substantial challenges to managing collaboration itself, notably politics and uncertainty. Challenges to collaboration become compounded when crossing multiple boundaries simultaneously, here illustrated using the case of three projects in the south-western Amazon. Strategic practices such as net brokering and organizational courtships are highly important when crossing multiple boundaries. There are important commonalities in strategic practices for crossing different boundaries, such as recognizing grievances to manage politics, constituting functional redundancies in networks to manage uncertainty and non-aligned collaboration to manage both difficulties.
Successful reconstruction or restoration of formerly cleared landscapes depends on land use history and its legacies. Programmes developed without consideration of these legacies may fail to be effective and lack credibility. However, compiling landscape histories is not simple; our participatory workshops with long-term local residents combined spatial data on landscape change with facilitated conversations to compile a history of landscape change. Timing and extent of key environmental and socioeconomic drivers of woody vegetation cover change since European settlement were established. Some drivers of clearing were relatively well-known, such as drought, or clearing for surface mining and pastoralism. However, others, including important interactions like prolonged drought intersecting with declining wool prices, were less known. These workshops verified provisional data, tested focus and methods, and identified critical time periods for further investigation. The workshops were a powerful transdisciplinary research tool that enhanced the understanding of researchers and participants beyond expectations. Other researchers should consider the general approach when assembling landscape history as a basis for documenting the degree and causes of change.
Cross-disciplinary research is advocated as a way of improving understanding of the complexity of environmental problems; cross-disciplinary projects, centres and academic institutes have increased. However, there is confusion over the nature of cross-disciplinary research. Through review of papers defining themselves as cross-disciplinary that aim to address conservation problems, and by standardizing the definition of cross-disciplinary research, it is possible to evaluate the potential research impact on peers and practitioners. When papers were reclassified by authors, those reclassified as transdisciplinary were perceived to have a greater impact on practitioners, and those reclassified as non cross-disciplinary had the greatest impact on colleagues. Having clear definitions for types of cross-disciplinary research would help establish a firm foundation, not only for improving research quality, but also for evaluating research impact. While the number of cross-disciplinary studies is increasing, cross-disciplinary research falls short of integrating disciplinary methods in much depth and does not have much impact on participants outside of academia.
Disturbances to key aspects of ecological systems, including biodiversity loss, climate change, pollution and natural resource degradation, have become a major concern to many policy analysts. Instead of learning from the study of biological complexity however, social scientists tend to recommend simple panaceas, particularly government or private ownership, as ‘the’ way to solve these problems. This paper reviews and assesses potential solutions for such overly simplified institutional prescriptions, referred to here as the ‘panacea problem’. In contrast to these simple prescriptions, recent research efforts are now illustrating the diversity of institutions around the world related to environmental conservation. The complexity of working institutions, however, presents a challenge to scholars who equate scientific knowledge with relatively simple models that predict optimal performance if specific institutional arrangements are in place. Dealing with this complexity has led to the development of frameworks as meta-theoretical tools. The institutional analysis and development (IAD) framework has been used over the last three decades as a foundation for a focused analysis of how institutions affect human incentives, actions and outcomes. Building on this foundation, the social-ecological systems (SES) framework has recently enabled researchers to begin the development of a common language that crosses social and ecological disciplines to analyse how interactions among a variety of factors affect outcomes. Such a framework may be able to facilitate a diagnostic approach that will help future analysts overcome the panacea problem. Using a common framework to diagnose the source, and possible amelioration, of poor outcomes for ecological and human systems enables a much finer understanding of these complex systems than has so far been obtained, and provides a basis for comparisons among many systems and ultimately more responsible policy prescriptions.
Global environmental changes present unprecedented challenges to humans and the ecosystems upon which they depend. The need for interdisciplinary approaches to solve such multidimensional challenges is clear, however less clear is whether current attempts to cross disciplinary boundaries are succeeding. Indeed, efforts to further interdisciplinary approaches remain hampered by failures in assessing their scope and success. Here a set of measures examined the interdisciplinarity of the environmental sciences and tested two literature-based hypotheses: (1) newer and larger disciplines are more interdisciplinary; and (2) interdisciplinary research has lower impact factors than its counterparts. In addition, network analysis was used to map interdisciplinarity and determine the relative extent to which environmental science disciplines draw on alternative disciplinary perspectives. Contrary to expectations, age and size of a discipline had no effect on measures of interdisciplinarity for papers published in 2006, though metrics indicated larger articles and journals were more interdisciplinary. In addition, interdisciplinary research had a greater impact factor than its more strictly disciplinary peers. Network analysis revealed disciplines acting as ‘interdisciplinary frontiers’, bridging critical gaps between otherwise disparate subject areas. Whilst interdisciplinarity is complex, a combination of diversity metrics and network analysis provides valuable preliminary insights for interdisciplinary environmental research policy. The successful promotion of interdisciplinarity is needed to help dispel commonly perceived barriers to interdisciplinarity and create opportunities for such work by increasing the space available for different disciplines to encounter each other. In particular, the networks presented highlight the importance of considering disciplinary functioning within the wider context, to ensure maximum benefit to the scientific community as a whole.
Interdisciplinary research requires scholars to learn by doing, and thus interdisciplinary work will be constantly undergoing development. This paper reviews how a large truly integrated interdisciplinary research team capable of handling complex interdependent social and environmental issues was created, developed and managed. The Canadian Coasts Under Stress bicoastal research project (CUS) constitutes a case study, aimed at providing a detailed analysis of a successful relatively ‘mature’ template for interdisciplinary team research that can be transferred to other teams and other research problems. CUS was created to address coastal social-ecological stress, and it uncovered linkages (‘pathways’) between the main drivers of social-ecological health in both human and environmental communities. In so doing, the team produced a comprehensive new way to understand restructuring and its impact on social-ecological health. In organizational terms, the team was divided into two coastal sub-teams (east and west) and five main research components that were reflected in the team logo as the arms of a seastar. To achieve integration of all components and subcomponents, a methodology for research construction and integration was employed that operated in tandem with the methodologies employed in the various subcomponents. Team members shared their vision of what they wished to achieve and meetings were facilitated in a variety of ways such that cross-fertilization and discussion were ongoing, and team members always knew exactly where their work fitted into the greater whole. In the process, significant student training occurred, and the challenge of equitable publication processes were met such that the output of the team achieved both disciplinary rigour and interdisciplinary understanding.
How can the governance of environment and resources be devolved in a way that incorporates effective user participation and feedback learning? Approaches that use the idea of adaptive management or learning-by-doing, combined with co-management, are particularly promising. Using an interdisciplinary literature covering many types of resources, and a conceptual model with three phases (communicative action, self-organization and collective action), the paper identifies some of the major processes leading to adaptive co-management. These include deliberation, visioning, building social capital, trust and institutions, capacity-building through networks and partnerships, and action-reflection-action loops for social learning. Such adaptive co-management is not simply a theoretical possibility but something that has been documented in a number of forestry, fisheries, wildlife, protected area, and wetland cases from both developed and developing countries. However, the experience with the decentralization reforms of the 1990s is largely negative for a number of reasons. Effective devolution takes time, requiring a shift in focus from a static concept of management to a dynamic concept of governance shaped by interactions, feedback learning and adaptation over time. Sharing of governance responsibilities and an ability to learn from experience are among the emerging trends in environmental management.
The discipline of ecology has evolved through several phases as it has developed and defined itself and its relationship with human society. While it initially had little to do with human concerns, it has become more applied, and is today more integrated with the human element in the way it conceptualizes complex social-ecological systems. As the science has developed, so too have its relationships with other disciplines, as well as people and processes outside the domain of science. However, it is unclear how far ecology has progressed in developing these relationships and where it should best focus its efforts in the future in order to increase its relevance and role in society. The concept of ecosystem services (the benefits people get from nature) has the potential to further this integration and clarify ecology's role and relevance in society, however doubt remains as to whether the concept has helped ecology in developing disciplinary and societal relationships. This review assesses the progress of ecology in relation to a transdisciplinary knowledge hierarchy (empirical, pragmatic, normative and purposive) where all levels of the hierarchy are coordinated on the basis of an overall purpose introduced from the purposive level down. At each of the levels of the knowledge hierarchy, the principles of transdisciplinarity, ecology's progress, the contribution of ecosystem services to this progress and future directions for a transdisciplinary ecology are explored. Ecology has made good progress in developing an interdisciplinary dialogue between the natural and social sciences and sectors. It is well-integrated with empirical and pragmatic disciplines and coordinates research at these two levels. At the normative level, the absence of collaborative frameworks and planning instruments is a major gap limiting the influence that ecology can have on land and resource use decisions at this level. At the purposive level, ecology has limited interactions with a narrow set of values associated with ecological ethics and economics. There is an obvious need for ecology to engage with the purposive disciplines of philosophy, ethics and theology, but also a need for ecological research to transform itself into a social process dealing with values and norms of both society and science. Ecosystem services have helped ecology to make links with many disciplines at the empirical and pragmatic levels, provided a useful concept and framework for interactions at the normative level requiring further examination, and helped make values explicit, allowing ecologists to begin to interact with the purposive level. The Western ecological economic origins of the ecosystem service concept presents a potential constraint to interactions at the purposive level, and must be considered and addressed if ecosystem services are to further the development of a transdisciplinary ecology, the joint ecology-society debate and the formulation and execution of policy.