Inter and transdisciplinary research programs are essential for protecting biodiversity

Published On: April 2017Categories: Editorials, Science Funding Review Panel Report


Cornelya F. C. Klütsch and Catarina C. Ferreira

Cornelya F. C. Klütsch

Cornelya F. C. Klütsch, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow and Instructor
Department of Biology, Trent University, Canada

Catarina C. Ferreira, PhD
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow
Department of Biology, Trent University, Canada & UFZ – Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, Germany

Canada is known for its rich natural resources and great biodiversity. Biological resources are typically exploited through logging, fishing, hunting, and trapping and these industries contribute significantly to Canada’s economy. For example, the total revenue from fish and seafood processing exceeded $4 billion in 2011 a, and at least 25 furbearer species are trapped and farmed every year for the Fur Industry generating nearly $1 billion revenue annually b. Biodiversity is also a cornerstone of the indigenous culture and nutrition, which reflects the considerable relevance of biodiversity in Canada. The country is characterized by a multicultural society that shows different levels of engagement with and dependency on biodiversity (e.g., indigenous versus non-indigenous) and that will therefore be differently affected by changes in the availability of biological resources. Strategies for long-term protection of biodiversity are thus essential for sustainable socio-economic development in Canada.

Biodiversity research encompasses multiple disciplines within the natural sciences to assess, for example, the health and viability of natural populations. However, the protection and effective management of biological resources in the face of rapidly changing environmental conditions, mostly human-induced (like climate change and habitat fragmentation), requires biodiversity studies to also incorporate sociological and economical perspectives. Interdisciplinary research aims to integrate independent academic fields to generate new holistic knowledge that can be translated into better policy/management actions. Hence, conservation science (broadly defined as the interdisciplinary study of protection of environment and natural resources) is in essence transdisciplinary, including academic and non-academic stakeholders like industry, indigenous communities, government agencies, and the general public.

The need for more collaborative and inter- and transdisciplinary research is increasingly debated in the scientific literature and reiterated by Canada’s Fundamental Science Review Panel in this month’s report. The report calls for increased financial support for interdisciplinary research and identifies some key challenges associated with projects of this nature. The latter includes higher time investment to start and sustain this type of research, data acquisition and management, and the effective communication across disciplines and with non-academics. Based on our experience as conservation scientists and on the challenges for collaborative research within our own field, we propose further steps towards nurturing the successful implementation of truly inter-and transdisciplinary research projects:

1. Starting small: the role of Universities

Engaging in collaborations is a skill that can be learned at any career stage if opportunities are provided. Universities are instrumental in the development of these skills and therefore, are best positioned to promote initiatives that teach young scientists how to navigate through inter- and transdisciplinary environments to maximize synergies in topics and between individuals. For example, formal and informal training can be provided through knowledge cafes c, intra- or inter-departmental scientific retreats, and intra- or inter-lab research projects. All of these are good starting points to explore common areas of interest, learn how to build on each other’s experience, and discuss potential partnerships or joint ventures.

2. Committed funding for interdisciplinary research

Dedicated funding is pivotal to make the transition from single- to interdisciplinary research (e.g., USA – INSPIRE (Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education) awards programme d). The report by Canada’s Fundamental Science Review Panel also mentions The Collaborative Health Research program as a flagship for funding interdisciplinary research at the intersection of natural and health sciences or engineering. However, across disciplines, particularly those for which traditionally research is not interdisciplinary (like biodiversity research), effective change might be best aided by the implementation of short-term (e.g., 1 year) start-up grants for the development of interdisciplinary teams to mature research ideas and common goals before applying for multiyear funding.

3. The establishment of inter-and transdisciplinary centers dedicated to conservation science that instigate scientists from different disciplines to work collaboratively within a holistic framework is at the core of the research agenda in some regions of the world (e.g., in the UK: This model is incredibly successful and should be replicated in Canada. Although the need for interdisciplinary centers is acknowledged in the report for the Health Sciences in Canada, the implementation of similar initiatives would be particularly beneficial for other fields, including biodiversity research. Ideally, these centers should be established at universities that already have in-house offices from other agencies, like Environment Canada. This would facilitate training in interdisciplinary and collaborative research and development of a common lingo for long-term communication between these institutions.

Inter- and transdisciplinary biodiversity research is the key to ensure the long-term protection of biological resources in Canada providing obvious benefits to this multicultural society. There are challenges to this endeavor that need to be surpassed, as it exceeds the conventional boundaries of the academic enterprise, but promoting the exchange of knowledge and opening up the dialogue between academia and society, is essentially the only mechanism to ensure sustainable socio-economic development.




d  Gewin V. (2014). Interdisciplinary research: Break out. Nature, 511: 371-373.