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Interdisciplinary training in environmental conservation: definitions, progress and future directions


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.

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*Correspondence: Dr Helen Newing Tel: + 44 1227 827034 Fax: + 44 1227 827289 e-mail:
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