It is increasingly recognized that interdisciplinarity is needed to tackle global challenges (Ledford, 2015, Nature, 525, 308–311), a daunting example being the problems of conserving biodiversity. However, walls between disciplines have proven no less difficult to tear down than those between nations (Reagan, 1987, Remarks at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany, 06/12/1987. www.archives.gov/historical-docs/todays-doc/index.html?dod-date=612). Interdisciplinary research suffers consistently low funding success (Bromham et al., 2016, Nature, 534, 684–687) and there are still philistines who perceive it as the province of researchers ‘who aren't good enough to make it in their own field’ (Ledford, 2015, Nature, 525, 308–311).
Challenging this stubborn disciplinary cartography remains, unfortunately, the exception in applied conservation research. As an illustration, the three international conferences that the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) organized during the past 15 years on canid, felid and mustelid conservation hosted, despite our best efforts, only a handful of delegates (out of nearly 1,000) with backgrounds genuinely beyond the biological sciences. Conservation scientists are sowing the seeds of inbred ideas that are decreasingly likely to germinate in today's complex world.
Emboldened by urgency and the prospect of gridlock (Hale et al., 2013, Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need It Most. Polity Press), WildCRU and the international NGO Panthera recently experimented with an alternative meeting format in an attempt to break the mould and identify innovative conservation strategies to prevent the extinction of lions Panthera leo in Africa (Bauer et al., 2015, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 14894–14899). In what we call the Oxford Format (named after its venue, in the tradition of diplomatic mechanisms; e.g. the Normandy Format to tackle the crisis in Ukraine), c. 30 lion insiders (ecologists, zoologists, geneticists from WildCRU and Panthera) brainstormed during 3 days with 30 lion outsiders (leading international political scientists, economists, philosophers, development experts) at the Cecil Summit (www.ox.ac.uk/news/science-blog/cecil-summit-another-key-milestone-lion-conservation-movement). The format began with short presentations by insiders (both researchers and those working with communities living alongside lions) on the lion's predicament, followed by short presentations by outsiders to provide radically different perspectives on this predicament. The unfolding discussions blended ideas that led to recasting lion conservation as an issue fundamentally framed by economics and governance. Paradoxically, none of these discussions focused on lion ecology but all were critically relevant to lion survival in an increasingly crowded African continent.
Although stimulating novel ideas is a far cry from implementing them, the success of the first Oxford Format summit in generating outbred ideas convinces us that the prize will be won by forcing, rather than by simply urging, interdisciplinarity to address conservation issues. There is no excuse left for inbred conservation thinking.