2006 Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society (WA Branch) Presidential Address,

Integrating Agricultural and Resource Economics into Multidisciplinary Programmes: Some challenges for teaching and learning

Jo Pluske


It would seem that discussion of topics focusing on the use of economics in research and/or teaching and learning often only arise when one is accepting a prize (e.g. Longworth 1992) or presenting a presidential address (e.g. Mullen 1996;  Malcolm 2004). Perhaps an indication that there is little interest in such topics and hence a lack of funding (or vice versa) or, perhaps people faced with a captive (define how you wish) audience find it difficult to pass up an opportunity to offer their point of view on a subject that they think should be of interest? Being in such a position it is my intention today to suggest to you that having to integrate economics into multidisciplinary programmes is going to increase in both research and teaching and learning. In the following discussion I will present some reasons, based on my experience, why this will occur and how we might deal with such challenges especially from a teaching and learning position.

First of all though, it is appropriate to define ‘multidisciplinary’. Multidisciplinary research and teaching encompasses a study topic in several disciplines at the same time whereas interdisciplinary research and teaching concerns the links and transfer of knowledge, methods, concepts and models from one discipline to another (Marinova and McGrath 2004). Alternatively transdisciplinary research and teaching considers what is between, across and beyond disciplines, and is used at Murdoch University in Sustainable Development education dealing with the dynamics of the physical, biological, social, economic and spiritual environment (Marinova and McGrath 2004). It is perhaps likely that in most teaching and research we are at the multidisciplinary and possibly interdisciplinary stages of integration and it would be useful to develop successful relationships at these levels before moving on to the next stage of transdisciplinarity.

Canning (2004) acknowledges that there are many reasons for interdisciplinary study including recognizing that life itself is interdisciplinary and hence employers require graduates who are prepared to meet the multidisciplinary needs of a workplace. Canning (2004) suggests that further investigations into interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary teaching and learning are necessary, particularly in terms of how teachers teach in an interdisciplinary way and how they interact with other colleagues teaching within their course but outside their own discipline. It is important to understand the attributes of each contributing discipline so as to achieve a strong interdisciplinary basis (Canning 2004). Likewise the same ideas are applicable to extend into the research field.

The following section will provide observations associated with multidisciplinary teaching and learning using a cohort of students taught at the University of Western Australia (UWA). In the next section a brief insight into multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research will be presented, followed by some concluding comments.

Teaching and learning in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary programmes

Economics Network (2005) note that economics is often taught within joint or multidisciplinary programmes with many ‘non-specialists’ taking economics for one year or one semester only, leading to problems with students with varying degrees of commitment to the subject. Furthermore, they suggest that many economic students have difficulty with the relating abstract concepts, diagrams and models to real-world economic issues and problems. Nevertheless, according to Flockton (2003) an economic viewpoint on important social issues is a key component in any social-scientific analysis and a program should be put in place for non-specialists that will largely highlight economic issues. Students with a greater proportion of their degree dedicated to economics will require a more formal approach to content with perhaps micro and macro theory at elementary and intermediate levels as well as appropriate specialist, theoretical areas (Flockton 2003).

As an example of service teaching in a multidisciplinary manner, Natural Resource Economics 1 (NRE1) is offered at UWA along with other Level 1 units, such as Chemistry, to students enrolled in an array of degrees. Over the years 2001 to 2006 this cohort of students has varied in the degree of interests that they have in various disciplines (Figure 1). The challenge for Level 1 teaching is to accommodate this change because students enrolled in different disciplines take varying numbers of economic-based units[1] over the course of their degree. Hence, some first year students need to develop a broad knowledge of economics at this level while others require an introduction to economics that will take them on to subsequent levels.

Figure 1. Beginning in the Year 2001 up until 2006, the percentage of students at UWA enrolled in the NRE1 unit and in the various disciplines: Agriculture; Animal Science; Economics/commerce/science; Horticulture and Viticulture; Natural Resource Management; Conservation Biology; and Other.

An additional challenge is dealing with students who come into Level 1 with different backgrounds and interests in economics with some having done at least Year 11 economics at school while others have no formal background in the subject. With respect to the cohort of students enrolled in NRE1 over the years 2002 to 2006 the proportion of students having undertaken prior formal learning in economics was relatively small (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. The number of students at UWA enrolled in the NRE1 unit, the number who had previously done at least Year 11 economics and the number of students from the first three year groups who decided to do a 4th year project in the School of Agricultural and Resource Economics (Note: data was not available for ‘experience’ in 2001).


So we are dealing with a cohort of students who come into the University with a wide range of interests from Agriculture to Conservation Biology with most not having much of a prior background in economics. One might say that it would be indeed a challenge to excite and convince these students to continue studying economics in their latter years of University. And indeed this seems to be the case. Only a small proportion of students who were enrolled in NRE1 in 2001, 2002 and 2003 went on to do a 4th year project with an economics focus in their final year (Figure 2).

While there is always room for improving teaching and learning quite possibly the teaching and learning environment is not the cause of low numbers of students taking economic subjects in their final year. It may simply be that they do not find it interesting. After all, by the very nature of their enrolment the majority have come to university to study physical and/or biological science. To give some indication of level of interest in economics, students enrolled in NRE1 in five of the six years from 2001 to 2006 were asked at the end of the unit if they agreed with the statement “I think economics is an interesting subject”. In each of the years, students indicated that the unit was well organized, clear and understandable explanations had been given and overall the teaching was effective with good use of examples and illustrations but by comparison they found economics to be relatively uninteresting (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Scores (maximum = 5) obtained in student SPOT[2] surveys in the unit NRE1 over 5 years between 2001 and 2006 indicating organization within the unit, clarity of explanations, effective teaching, good use of examples and the level of interest the students have in economics (Note: this data was not collected in 2004).

In terms of agricultural economics, apparently such an outcome is not unexpected. Arcus (1994) suggested that the number of graduates specializing in agricultural economics is likely to decline with the education industry having to look for other opportunities such as trade, food safety, environmental management and resource conservation, animal welfare and health. Ten years later Malcolm (2004) stressed that agricultural economics courses and the numbers of students in them are declining. So despite the efforts being made at the University level to encourage students to study agricultural and quite possibly other applied economics, there is still work to be done with the multidisciplinary student base.

At UWA, teaching and learning in agricultural and resource economics continues to evolve with recognition of natural resource economics, environmental economics, ecological economics, bioeconomics as well as agricultural economics. In addition, as predicted would happen in the sector by Harrison and Tisdell (1994) there have been developments in co-operative teaching programmes and research activities related to resource and environmental management. However, perhaps the greatest initiatives are in looking to a new core of potential students. In 2004, UWA had it first graduate in a combined Science/Commerce degree. Currently UWA has around 40 students enrolled in either this degree or the Science/Economics degree. Furthermore, in an attempt to attract more students to applied economics in 2006, UWA introduced three new streams: Environmental and Natural Resource Economics; Geology and Resource Economics; and Agricultural Economics. The response was positive with 12 per cent of the student cohort enrolling in one of these streams (Figure 1).

Even so, developing teaching and learning at the tertiary level has drawbacks. Resources including time are paramount for a successful outcome. Furthermore, there has been a long-established notion in academia that research is more highly valued than teaching and not being a dedicated teacher is unlikely to create a serious career disadvantage (Martin 1998). In 2004 DEST (DEST, 2004) stated that teaching is recognised as a core activity of all higher education providers. However, Australian Government funding, internal staff promotion practices and institutional prestige tend to reinforce the importance of research performance rather than teaching performance. Incentives for adopting teaching initiatives, such as discussed by Pluske and Holmes (2006), and additional funding may result in greater investments in teaching and learning. In addition,  in 2006 the Carrick Institute received $26 million and aims to provide among other initiatives a discipline based initiatives scheme to encourage greater sharing of quality practice, initiatives and learning within and across discipline communities (Carrick 2005; Carrick, 2006).

Teaching and learning in multidisciplinary research

In his 2004 AARES Presidential Address, Bill Malcolm stated that economic illiteracy is abundant in farm management analysis (Malcolm 2004). He questions why researchers working outside the economics field command high standards of theoretical rigour in their disciplines but are happy to recognize and work with findings from research done in economics that is of dubious quality. Mullen (1996) suggests that some scientists seem to forget about techniques that they would normally apply in research when they are engaged in research requiring economic theory such as policy. As alluded to by Loane (1992) it was common for investment in government programs such as salinity and water management, control of erosion and pest management to be driven more by scientific advice and community demand than by explicit economic analysis. However, linking science and economics is crucial because physical and scientific estimates of changes in characteristics often show deterioration in quality or quantity of inputs or outputs (Loane 1992). 

Is multidisciplinary research that includes economics a solution to incompetent economic analysis? MacAulay (1988) advises that issues in research management lead to disincentives in cooperative research. Furthermore, Mullen (1996) believes that cooperation between economists and scientists (part of a more general call for multidisciplinary research) has been enthusiastically sought without much regard for how it should be done or the cost of cooperation. Kingwell (2005) also notes that there are transaction costs associated with collaboration and therefore low-cost and effective ways of encouraging beneficial interaction between economists and scientists need to be put in place by project managers to ensure successful research and development. In addition, Mullen (1996) concedes that there is no easy prescription to reduce conflict between science and economics but the disciplines must work together with a greater understanding by economists of how scientist ‘do’ science and vice versa,  leading to more productive cooperative work. Perhaps Sustainability and Economics in Agriculture (SEA) is an example of a project that has certainly attempted to do this[3].

Other initiatives, such as suggested by Kingwell (2005), show how a simple profit equation can be the catalyst for bringing economists and scientists together with a common goal of working on each of the parameters to generate the largest profit gains. He also notes that this simple analysis could be expanded to include a farming system or supply chain model with financial and environmental impacts that could provide valuable information for directions in research and development. Malcolm (2004) also proposes that the main focus of improving economic literacy should be with research and development organizations because this is where research problems are identified, findings derived and new technologies developed.

Documenting the process of integrated research especially in the public sector has not been widely implemented (van Kerkhoff 2005). Barron et al. (2006) provides an insight into the success of the Rural Towns Liquid Assets project at the interdisciplinary level whereby economics is integrated with physical sciences in a systems analysis. It would be fair to note that while significant effort has been made to work as a team to achieve an outcome, issues associated with different languages being used in the various disciplines, different expectations of requirements and data as well as team members’ varying levels of knowledge outside their disciplines, have created some additional challenges for the project. Moreover, extending the findings to a largely economics illiterate base requires economists to engage in teaching and learning at other levels outside the traditional educational institutions.

Concluding comments

Longworth (1992) emphasizes that for sustainable long term development that leads to improvements in the well-being of society purely scientific solutions are not enough if they do not also contain economic and social dimensions. He further stresses that agricultural educators, scientists and research administrators need to place greater emphasis on social and economic aspects of agricultural production systems. Today, such recommendations are also relevant for environmental and natural resource systems. However, as Kennedy (2000) alludes to, so as to ensure effective teaching and research, economists must also maintain and strengthen their disciplinary roots. In addition, any economists working in a multidisciplinary precinct must understand the nature of the people they are working with and the expectations of these people in terms of what they believe the outcomes of either teaching or research will be. There is also a place for the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society to continue promoting a strong discipline base as well as encouraging multi- and interdisciplinary teaching and research. To have this Society (and other related ones), industry, and alumni promoting offerings in agricultural and resource economics courses and the need for greater understanding in research, can only be a step forward.

Teaching, learning and research at a multidisciplinary level is a bigger issue than one might imagine and this paper just skims over some of the issues. While this brief discussion won’t provide answers to all of the issues that need addressing, perhaps it may tempt a few brave ones to find that illusive funding to help develop a teaching, learning and research environment with a greater proportion of economic literate participants.


Arcus, P.L. (1994). Whither agricultural economics: A look ahead to the twenty first century. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 62(3): 415-422.

Barron, B., Turner, J., Barr, A., Smales, T., Pridham, M., Burton, M., and Pluske, J. (2006). Integrating science within the West Australian Rural Towns Liquid Assets Project. Paper submitted to the Integration Showcase: Reflecting on Integrated Mission Directed Research, 27-28 June 2006. CSIRO Emerging Science: Social and Economic Integration, Canberra.

Canning, J. (2004). Interdisciplinary teaching and learning in area studies. Academic papers, articles and case studies for learning and teaching in languages, linguistics and area studies. Retrieved 31st July 2006 from http://www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk/resources/paper.aspx?resourceid=2134

Carrick (2005). Discipline-Based Initiatives. The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Retrieved 31st July 2006 from http://www.carrickinstitute.edu.au/carrick/go/pid/120

Carrick (2006). Carrick awards over three million in grants. Media Release, 19th June. The Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Retrieved 31st July 2006 from


DEST (2004). Promoting excellence in learning and teaching. Fact Sheet, Department of Education, Science and Training, Australia. Retrieved 12th October 2005, from: http://www.backingaustraliasfuture.gov.au/fact_sheets/8.htm

Economics Network (2005). The Handbook for Economic Lecturers. Economics Network of the UK's Higher Education Academy, University of Bristol. Retrieved 31st July 2006 from http://www.econmicsnetwork.ac.uk/handbook/pbl/11.htm

Flockton, C. (2003). Teaching economics in area studies programmes. Guide to Good Practice for learning and teaching in languages, linguistics and area studies. Retrieved 31st July 2006 from http://www.lang.ltsn.ac.uk/resources/goodpractice.aspx?resourceid=1560

Harrison, S.R. and Tisdell, C.A. (1994). Resource Economics and the Environment. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 62(3): 399-413.

Kingwell, R. (2005). Research issues for future agriculture: an economist’s perspective. Invited keynote address to the Symposium “Agricultural Sustainability: the interface between the sciences and economics”, University of Sydney, 27th May.

Loane, B. (1992). Linking science and economics for policy advice: case-study of trees for salinity control. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 60(2): 269-276.

Longworth, J.W. (1992). The 1991 Farrer Memorial Oration: Sustainability and Agricultural Extension. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 60(1): 79-88.

MacAulay, T.G. (1988). Co-operative research in agricultural economics. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 56(3): 347-351.

Malcolm, B. (2004). Where’s the economics? The core discipline of farm management has gone missing! The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 48(3): 395-417.

Marinova, D. and McGrath, N. (2004). A transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning sustainability: A pedagogy for life. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtain.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/marinova.html

Martin, M. (1998). Tied knowledge: power in higher education. Retrieved 12th October 2005 from: http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/pubs/98tk/

Mullen, J.D. (1996). Why economists and scientists find cooperation costly. Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics 64(2): 216-224.

Pluske J. and Holmes, T. (2006) Incentives for adopting teaching initiatives in science. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtain.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/pluske.html

van Kerkhoff, L. (2005). Strategic integration: The practical politics of integrated research in context. Journal of Research Practice 1(2): 1-21.

[1] Horticulture and Viticulture streams (and possible ‘Other’ disciplines such as Environmental Science) take just one unit of economics, students in Animal Science take two units of economics, those in Agriculture and Conservation Biology have the option of taking two or more units, students in the Natural Resource Management programme generally take three or more units of economics while those in Economic/commerce/science stream would take more than three units of economics.

[2] Student Perception of Teaching surveys are conducted by the UWA Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.

[3] For example of projects see: http://www.crcsalinity.com/newsletter/sea/archive.html