How do we bring public health and ecosystem science together to tackle antimicrobial resistance?

Submitted by editor on 10 September 2021.Get the paper!


"Improving the dialogue between public health and ecosystem science on antimicrobial resistance"

In 2017 I was sitting in an office talking to Piran White and Hilary Graham at the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, UK. This was a new experience for me as I am an evolutionary ecologist working within the Evolution and Ecology research group at the University of Lincoln, UK. I had just started a discipline-hopping placement funded by NERC Valuing Nature, a scheme designed to get people working outside of their discipline, and one that brought me to explore the topic of antimicrobial resistance.

Resistance to antibiotics and antimicrobials, is fundamentally a natural evolutionary phenomenon that through human misuse has turned into a huge public health challenge threatening to undermine medical progress, and to become the leading cause of death worldwide by 2050 (O’Neill 2014). Antimicrobial resistance crosses human-animal-environment boundaries. It is therefore an ecosystem-level, interdisciplinary challenge at its core, and two of the key disciplines involved in understanding it are public health and ecology. As Hilary, Piran and I talked, we thought it would be a good idea to ask expert researchers from both public health and ecology about the extent to which they thought the concept of ecosystems had been integrated within the ongoing research on antimicrobial resistance in their respective fields. And so, I set off interviewing leading researchers in both fields, some from their respective contacts, and some identified through key literature. Initially I interviewed people in person, but as the pandemic unfolded, I conducted interviews online, which also allowed me to expand my search beyond the UK.

Fast forward to 2021, the results from those interviews have now been published in an Ignite piece, “Improving the dialogue between public health and ecosystem science on antimicrobial resistance”. We found that researchers from both fields felt that research on antimicrobial resistance is only beginning to consider ecosystems. The interviewees highlighted a range of barriers that contributed to limiting the integration of ecosystems in the different disciplines, from conceptual barriers to a lack of opportunities to come together. On the other hand, from our analysis it also appeared that the field of public health is increasingly open to integrating the ecological dimensions of health.

We propose that learned society and key academic journals lead alongside funders to promote and increase the visibility of interdisciplinary research on antimicrobial resistance. This can be done through Special Issues highlighting good practice and stand-out examples of collaboration where ecosystems are the focus of antimicrobial resistance research, and workshops to bring people together, while encouraging outreach to the respective research communities. There is also a need to expand current knowledge exchange, between different disciplines, and from research into policy and practice. This could be incentivised through interdisciplinary knowledge transfer fellowships, discipline-hopping internships and champion roles. It is clear that more needs to be done to engage the two fields, and that more ecologists need to get involved to bring the ecosystem perspective into antimicrobial resistance research, so that we can build towards more integrated approaches to tackling this major global challenge.


Graziella Iossa & Piran C. L. White


@g_iossa @UoLScience @UoLLifeSciences @YorkEnvironment @York_IGDC @YESIUoY

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