One Health and the zoonoses lens

How can interdisciplinary development science meet global challenges?

Mitigating the devastating effects of zoonoses is a vital development challenge.

Understanding zoonoses – and the value of a development studies perspectives in this – is increasingly important as the interaction between people and animals changes as a result of rapid urbanisation, income growth, changing diets and more. The risks and burdens of zoonoses are borne particularly by poor and marginalised people in the world.

Minimising these burdens requires actions across social, political, medical, veterinary and environmental spheres where diverse stakeholders need to engage in an interdisciplinary - or One Health - approach.

This DSA-ESRC 'Meeting the Challenges' workshop provided a platform to share and discuss ongoing effort in generating scientific knowledge that helps tackle zoonoses, as well as effective ways in which research engages with practitioners and policymakers to achieve greater development impacts. It reflected through the One Health/zoonoses lens on how engaged Development Studies can contribute to meeting global challenges.

"If we can overcome some of these challenges for zoonoses it will bring us important wider lessons we can take to the bigger community tackling other challenges."
Professor Melissa Leach, IDS Director

"Development Studies is helpful for understanding who gets sick, why and where – highlighting the optimal intervention points.”

Participants to the workshop came from a variety of disciplines, including human and animal medicine, social science such as Economics and Social Anthropology, and disease modelling.

They included researchers from countries in Asia and Africa as well as those from the UK ...

... and an exercise in which participants mapped where they had worked served as an icebreaker and a visual overview of the global zoonoses research activity represented in the room.

It paved the way to more intensive participatory exercises. These included a World Cafe-style session, designed to pinpoint common obstacles experienced when researchers undertake interdisciplinary zoonoses research.

Four key challenges were identified:


In interdisciplinary research projects, social scientists rarely lead.

There have been exceptions to this – for example with the ESPA-funded Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium where social anthropologist Melissa Leach was principal investigator, and in the ZELS-funded Social, Economic and Environmental Drivers of Zoonoses in Tanzania, where geographer Professor Jo Sharp (pictured above) shares the principal investigator’s position with veterinary epidemiologist Professor Sarah Cleaveland.

Too often though, social scientists are viewed as the handmaidens to the natural scientists.

Key reflections

  • More discussion is required around what it means to take integrated approaches, especially in relation to power and practice, and in particular taking into account North-South dimensions.
  •  One participant felt current trends in international science funding can be oriented towards quick, technical fixes; there being less demand for theory and understandings of power.
  • There is a mis-perception among natural scientists that social science is just a set of tools, that it doesn’t require specialist training. Also, that it is critical rather than solution-focused – an issue one participant said social scientists need might to consider too.
  • Is there a need to move to a more transformative social science agenda, and reframe how both problems and solutions are thought about?


How can integration take place in large international, interdisciplinary research projects?

To date, the choice has most usually been between: having separate work packages split by disciplinary methods; having separate work packages which reflect cross-cutting themes; and via producing a final, 'big model’, synthesising all data.

Is the choice always between distilling research into a kind of ‘soup’ or triangulation? Is a third way possible?

Key reflections

  • Funding calls show an increasing pressure to come up with a common narrative – yet coming up with a framework that accommodates everybody (i.e. integration) can result in a bland conceptual framework.
  • Practical problems can occur when some forms of data collection rely on the completion of collection/analysis of other forms. Careful phasing of research may be required.
  • The geographical spread of researchers can mitigate against the face-to-face and informal communication that can be important for learning to work together.
  • The limits of modelling need to be discussed, including ways of doing more non-linear modelling which reflects systems complexity.


Disciplinary purists still dominate in academia, and professional incentives push researchers towards disciplinary purity.

Key reflections

  • Interdisciplinarity may be too risky for early-career researchers. Could more senior researchers recognise this, and accommodate for it, for example by taking the lead on interdisciplinary research while incorporating and making space for younger researchers involved to demonstrate excellence in their respective fields?
  • Could a shift in focus towards development, policy and impact in research result in a higher priority for interdisciplinary research?
  • Could Development Studies work as the “third branch” (to natural and social sciences) that would bridge this gap?
  • There are some signs that things are changing. For example, the rise of topic-based journals.


Much interdisciplinary research emerges out of informal networks based on people's interpersonal relationships; both having them in the first place, but also their cultivation and their sustainability.

Key reflections

  • Can there be ways to formalise processes that lead to these relationships for interdisciplinary work? Can we come up with frameworks for respecting each other and communicating more effectively across disciplines?
  • For example, the ZELS Associated Studentships (ZELS-AS) programme has gone a long way in building and developed interdisciplinary relationships among a cohort of young zoonoses researchers.
  • Face-to-face meetings are important and this is a challenge to international projects. But as well as physical space/distance, there are also different, sometimes challenging, cultural expectations, e.g. relating to age.
  • Inter-project workshops, and developing long-term relationships across several (possibly differently-funded) projects, can help to build on existing teams and establish networks for future collaborations.
  • One participation pointed out that interpersonal relationships should not be the only driver of interdisciplinary research.

A final participatory session used the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to discuss how zoonoses research can contribute to the challenges faced by developing countries.

Participants were asked to consider how the research goals of a (real or imaginary) interdisciplinary zoonoses project related to development goals, as framed by the SDGs, and then to tease out the pathways that connect these outputs to the identified development goals.

The outputs considered were numerous – a result of decades of research experience in the room. They included aspects of access to better information on the burden of diseases, contextual understandings of gender-work divisions, transmission models, policy recommendations, experimental vaccines, contributions to action plans, improving frameworks and generating knowledge of the research on the ground.

The idea of linking research outputs to the SDGs was unfamiliar terrain for most participants, and rethinking research in this way challenged conventional ways of considering partnerships.

One group said it helped them to think of themselves as development researchers rather than practitioners of very different disciplines, and wondered if the lens of ‘development’ could be the ‘glue’ to bring interdisciplinary teams together and make them more effective, including for working towards the SDGs.

Syed Abbas presenting

"An exercise like this might allow the development of a shared vision for scientific collaborations that looks at the bigger picture." (CLICK IMAGE to read a blog from Syed Abbas.)

"An exercise like this might allow the development of a shared vision for scientific collaborations that looks at the bigger picture." (CLICK IMAGE to read a blog from Syed Abbas.)

Further discussion points to emerge:

  • Research councils sometimes expect interdisciplinary research collaboration to be immediate - but it can be towards the end of a project that relationships start to gel and real understanding and progress begins. As a result, long-term continuity is important.
  • Convincing policymakers to adopt recommendations is a key challenge, as is the political nature of research in regards to what may and may not be published. It was suggested that barriers to both publishing and influencing may be more prevalent in social science because qualitative research is more “up to interpretation”.
  • A social scientist and a natural scientist both noted that although vaccines are an output, they may – or may not – reduce inequality, depending on how they are delivered.
  • One participant suggested that in order to be useful in achieving the SDGs research must take a more outcome-oriented approach. She urged the scientists to ask themselves, “What are the changes you want to see, and what research is needed to achieve it?” – rather than the other way around.
  • A plea was made for universities and journals to change their outlook as they are one of the main impediments for researchers pursuing interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research being much harder to publish. Many agreed that if this were to change, the incentive to work across-disciplines would be much higher.


"Simply having the knowledge of how you break a cycle in terms of the hard science doesn’t necessarily translate directly into disease control progammes."


“Health touches on many different aspects of development, be that aspects of education, aspects of gender or aspects of the environment ... Development Studies packages this all together to contribute towards an understanding of disease with a holistic perspective.”


“To address the global challenges it is high time for different sectors to work together to be able to contain diseases or improve the wellbeing and health of communities.”


“For me, social science is about putting people at the centre … asking key questions about the use of what we are doing and who is gaining by what we are doing, rather than letting the science and the technology lead. It is about having a transformative agenda rather than just filling in the bits that the hard sciences can’t fill in themselves.”
Professor Sarah White, President, DSA

You think your mother’s food is the best, until you taste other people’s cooking” KENYAN SAYING

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