The battle of the sciences

These last two weeks I have been lucky enough to be at two workshops that could not have been more different. One was surrounded by the high mountains of the French and Swiss Alps and the other one close to the flat muds of the Wadden Sea at the Danish-German border. Both landscapes are equally inspiring and I was massively looking forward to broadening my horizon and being inspired by two workshops in such great settings.

Wadden Sea








But the differences in the landscape are not really what I want to focus on, even though I do like the fact that they could not have been in more different places – just like the people and their science backgrounds. Before I discuss all the differences, let’s summarise some further similarities. I think it is safe to assume that all attendees at both workshops were concerned with the state of the natural world. Both workshops centred around conflicts between people that are most concerned about the conservation of biodiversity and those focused on human livelihoods. There are many examples of such conflicts, such as protected areas for the conservation of biodiversity and crop or livestock damage by megafauna around these protected areas (e.g. elephants, large carnivores). Another example comes from successful protection, reintroduction or natural return of species that used to be rare in certain regions or areas (geese, cranes, eagles, wolves, bears) and that are now impacting people’s livelihoods. Another commonality between the two workshops was that they were concerned with the link, or more often the missing link, between science and policy.

So far this sounds all very harmonious. However, there were some fundamental differences between the two groups that turned out to be very challenging, at least for me. One of the workshops was mostly dominated by social scientists and the other one mostly by natural scientists. Interdisciplinary workshops are a huge challenge because of the usual reasons: differences in language, methods, approaches etc. However, one aspect really surprised me. While the natural sciences purely tried to find fixes related to the natural world and the animals, the social scientists saw the solution almost exclusively in the people. The other science was usually described as random and unpredictable. One could almost use the same sentence and fill in the words “animals” and “people” interchangeably. A common sentence was “there is nothing we can do about the animals/people because their behaviour is completely unpredictable, and thus instead we should study in more depth (now use the other one) people/animals to gain greater insight and find out what the actions are to tackle the conflict”.

This resulted in a huge challenge for myself as I often found myself trying to argue for the need of both sciences to be able to predict the response of the world to change. Reflecting on my own behaviour, I found it much easier to argue strongly for the sciences that I didn’t study (social sciences) rather than the one people knew I had an official qualification for (natural sciences) as if it was better to fight for someone else than for my own discipline. Thus, I found myself constantly being challenged by these two workshops and trying, probably failing, to defend and advocate the other side. I believe that all workshop attendees have heard about interdisciplinary approaches and would generally support their overall value. Still, reality has shown me that often scientists fall back into what they know best and then it is very hard not to slip into an advocatory role of one or the other sciences.

Even though it was personally massively challenging, I believe that I have learned a lot and that both workshops can lead us in the right direction of interdisciplinary sciences that is able to inform policy and provide the evidence that policy makers seek or need to be confronted with. I am looking forward to be inspired and challenged again by social and natural scientists at more workshops in the future and last but not least be inspired by the incredible height of mountains and the endless vastness of the mudflats. Eh, one last crazy idea, maybe we should all meet together, social and natural scientists, or make sure we have equal numbers of each at workshops that are concerned with the state of the natural world, science and policy. If we do, we should invite artists, for example that work with music or films (these participated in one of the workshops) because they can inspire us to cross the social-natural divide and bring people together.

One Comment on “The battle of the sciences

  1. Hi Nils, I enjoyed your blog, and I would like to comment on your very last idea – I totally agree- I think it is important to also involve artists as they have the ability to translate our conservation messages into pieces of art which can inspire the general public, and really reach out to their emotions. I am part of a group who is thinking about how we can promote these collaborations: We also have a facebook page:, which I have added you to. It would be interesting to chat more about this at the BES conference! See you soon in Edinburgh.

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