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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 18, Number 2, 1997 (UNU Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 1997, 118 pages)
close this folderWorking Group report on disciplinary and interdisciplinary breadth required for dealing with food and nutrition issues
View the documentBackground
View the documentSpecific objectives
View the documentImplementation
View the documentAddressing remaining issues
View the documentMonitoring progress
View the documentReferences

Specific objectives

Given the overall objective of developing a more effective cadre of nutrition professionals, the Workshop identified the functional specialities, or career tracks, that are likely to differ to a varying extent in their advanced training requirements; the relevant bodies of knowledge and skills; and the training modalities. These are discussed in the next section, followed by a description of specific activities and issues to be addressed in the implementation.

Functional specialities

Six functional specialities in applied nutrition were identified, as shown in figure 1:

Teachers in universities or training centres are in a position to train the future generation of nutrition-related professionals.

Problem-oriented researchers have the ability to conduct a variety of food- and nutrition-related research at community, national, and international levels, usually in an interdisciplinary context. It is recognized that a continuing need exists for highly specialized, discipline-based research, but this Workshop focused on the problem-oriented variety.

Policy planners may be employed in food and nutrition sections of government or in other sections that do not have food and nutrition in their titles. These professionals are usually found in the technical and planning sections of national ministries and bilateral and international agencies. They are responsible for identifying and analysing key problems and trends within a given policy domain or sector and advising policy makers on alternative policy options. As such, they can exert a significant influence on the shape of national and agency policy.

FIG. 1. Functional specialities

University teachers and trainers at training centres

-degree programme
-non-degree training


-operations research
-sectoral and multisectoral policy research
-problem-oriented biological and behavioural research

Policy planners

-food and nutrition
-agriculture and natural resources
-environmental and food safety
-human resource development
-social welfare
-regional/integrated planning

Programme managers

-vertical programmes

Industry nutrition specialists

-food sciences, product development


-mass media
-nutrition/health education/promotion

Programme managers are responsible for the planning, implementation, and management of specific food, nutrition, or sectoral programmes. As with policy planners, they may be found in government ministries or external agencies. These individuals often have considerable discretion in the extent to which, and the ways in which, food and nutrition issues are effectively addressed by their programmes, and they are responsible for ensuring that an effective monitoring and evaluation system is in place and capable of informing key decisions about the programme.

Industry nutrition specialists are responsible for advising their companies on product development, labelling, marketing and advertising, and consumer relations. Given these roles, they are potentially important partners that the other functional specialists should seek out. The effectiveness of those partnerships would be enhanced if these individuals were to receive some exposure to, or training in, the broad multidisciplinary approach to nutrition.

Communicators can have roles at several levels. They may be health or nutrition educators at the community level, designers and implementers of social marketing or other educational programmes at district through national levels, advisers in the design of national advocacy efforts, public relations officers, and employees within governmental or non-governmental mass media organizations (such as journalists). This speciality is considered a critically important component of any national nutrition effort.

Most of these categories can be further divided into those that are directly focused on food and nutrition issues (e.g., nutrition policy planners and nutrition programme managers) versus those working in nutrition-related areas (e.g., agricultural policy planners and health programme managers). Advanced training should be directed at both types, although different levels and methods will be required.

It should be noted that the term "functional specialities," as used here, refers to the particular sets of knowledge and skills required to be effective in various professional settings. This is distinct from the more traditional, discipline-based specialities, because the relevant knowledge and skills for a given professional function are likely to come from a variety of disciplines and experiential sources. The more traditional, discipline-based specialities are appropriate for conducting specialized research within a given discipline, but do not provide the necessary breadth for effective practitioners. It is recognized that there may be partial overlap in the knowledge and skills required for some of the six specialities, and that a given individual may play more than one role during his or her career.

Relevant bodies of knowledge, skills, and professional orientations

The Workshop concluded that the need for cross-disciplinary breadth as well as functional depth is best addressed by conceptualizing a core body of knowledge, skills, and attitudes and a variety of functional specialities. The relevant bodies of knowledge and skills in the core were defined in the Workshop as shown in figure 2. As shown, the relevant knowledge spans a variety of biological and social sciences in order to facilitate the analysis of food and nutrition problems at multiple levels (molecular, physiological, individual, household, population, and institutional) and across multiple sectors (health, agricultural, economic). The requisite skills include those required for the assessment and analysis of problems, causes, and consequences within each level and across various sectors. The skills component also includes those required for initiating, managing, and evaluating actions to ameliorate food and nutrition problems. This includes a variety of programme-management skills (planning, implementation, and evaluation), several forms of communication-centred skills (e.g., negotiation and collaborative problem-solving), and leadership skills (e.g., visioning and strategic planning, motivational skills, group facilitation, and entrepreneurial problem-solving).

FIG. 2. Bodies of knowledge, skills, and attitudes: The core component

Nutritional biochemistry
Nutritional physiology
Nutritional behaviour/social science aspects
Nutrition-related disorders: individual level
Nutritional assessment
Nutritional epidemiology: population-level description of distribution of nutritional problem, epidemiologic methods

- characteristics of foods
- food science and technology
- food safety

Ecology of food and nutrition

- food and agricultural systems
- ecology of health and disease

Economics: micro and macro concepts
Sociology: society and nutrition
Anthropology: communication behaviour
Research design, methods, and interpretation
Management: programme planning, management, and evaluation
Leadership attitudes and skills

- as part of programme management skills
- as part of modelling throughout course
- important for all tracks

Communication, negotiation, motivation, and collaborative problem-solving,

- concepts
- skills

Principles of reflective practice

A distinction is made here between collaborative and entrepreneurial approaches. A collaborative approach is the preferred one in most situations and refers to the direct involvement of significant individuals or groups from several governmental or non-governmental organizations in an effort jointly to define goals and strategies for pursuing them [1]. Entrepreneurship is a useful skill for catalysing such collaborative approaches, but in this context entrepreneurship refers to an alternative approach that may be needed in those (common) situations in which political, institutional, or other contextual factors are not conducive to a genuine collaboration. In this approach, the nutrition specialist (often with the support of a small team of allies) seeks out targets of opportunity and develops and implements a strategic method for mobilizing the support and/or neutralizing the opposition of various groups. This is an approach that is familiar to seasoned professionals and has been described in the literature [2-4].

It is readily appreciated that this collection of knowledge-, skill-, and attitude-development components poses several significant challenges. Among these are the time constraints in various training curricula, the need to integrate concepts and skills across domains and in an operational framework, the need for teachers and trainers from a breadth of backgrounds, and the need to operate a cross-cutting training programme within institutions whose structures, reward systems, and values are still based on a disciplinary model. These issues are addressed in the section on training modalities.

The relevant bodies of knowledge and skills required in various functional specialities were more difficult to define in this Workshop, in part because not all of the relevant specializations were represented. It was proposed that this task be accomplished as a follow-up activity to the Workshop, in collaboration with institutions with recognized strengths in these functional specialities.

Training modalities

A variety of modalities exist for advanced training, including degree programmes (M.S., M.P.S., and Ph.D.) as well as workshops, short courses, in-service and on-the-job training, distance education, fieldwork for research- or programme-based work, exchanges involving lecturers and various forms of practitioners, mentoring, and others. The choice of the most appropriate modality will depend upon the purpose of the training, the audience and their prior knowledge and skills, and the resources and institutional possibilities in a given country or region. As a general principle, the Workshop noted that experience- and practice-oriented modalities are the most effective ones for acquiring and integrating knowledge and skills, and that training programmes should emphasize the use of these forms of training. It was also noted that one of the most effective methods for developing leadership skills and the desirable professional orientation (collaborative, entrepreneurial, innovative, etc.) is through role modelling. Thus, for example, the use of programme- and policy-based practitioners in degree or shorter-term training would be encouraged, as would the use of mentoring and field or experiential learning that exposes students to appropriate role models. There is also some positive experience with the use of practitioner profiles or narratives written in the first person, which could be compiled specifically for this purpose. The profiles are personal experiences in problem-solving, written by practioners to be used in training programmes. They have been found to be an effective tool for practitioner training in professions similar to those being described here for nutrition specialists [5].

As regards the breadth of the core component and the challenges it poses, the Workshop made the following observations and suggestions.

Defining core concepts and skills

There is a critical need to identify not only the broad bodies of knowledge in the core component (as shown in fig. 2), but also the core concepts and principles within each domain that are critical for effective understanding and problem-solving. One method of doing so, based on analysis of problem-based case studies, was suggested by Pelletier [6]. In deciding the core concepts and principles, it is useful to bear in mind that the goal should be to prepare practitioners to be able to recognize situations in which they should consult specialists in a given area and to meaningfully converse with such specialists. Examples of such situations include the following: (1) nutrient interactions or bioavailability might be an issue, so that it would be necessary to seek out specialists who could elaborate on that possibility; (2) an evaluation design might be flawed by inadequate sample sizes, a grossly non-comparable control group, or reporting biases; (3) an agricultural programme might claim nutritional improvement as one of its goals, but its design might be based on a naive understanding of household behaviour and the causes of malnutrition. This is quite different from expecting students to acquire all of the specialized knowledge from these various domains. It may be useful to define and distinguish the knowledge required for "familiarity" versus "competence" versus "expertise" in formulating the core curriculum.

Flexible use of modules

In many university settings, entire one-semester courses are offered in each of the disciplines or knowledge domains shown in figure 2, which makes it totally infeasible for students to achieve this degree of breadth. Moreover, it is not clear that the content of such courses corresponds to the critical knowledge and skills that practitioners require; many of the social science courses may not be based on nutrition examples and nutrition-relevant issues; and the critical process of integrating knowledge across disciplinary boundaries is left to the student. Thus, the Workshop is not proposing that training programmes attempt to use full-semester courses in each of these disciplines to create a core curriculum. Rather, it is suggested that a core course be constructed anew for this purpose, if one does not yet exist. In some institutions, this has been accomplished through the use of a block or modular system. In such a system, the students interact intensively with peers and specialists in small groups for one to three weeks before proceeding to the next module. This system requires close coordination between the specialists and the overall course director, and a facilitated learning approach. Some positive experiences were reported with this approach by several members of the Workshop. Some of these programmes have been described elsewhere [7], but one of the recommendations from the Workshop is that more effort be made in sharing descriptions of innovative programmes along these lines.

The use of a modular approach in designing the core is particularly attractive, because each module can easily form the basis for specific workshops, and because degree students can complete their requirements in a more flexible schedule over a longer period of time. The possibility of creating modules for specialized training should be further explored, in relation to the full range of functional specialities.

The two-track model

In the context of master's degree programmes, the Workshop noted the importance of distinguishing a Master of Science (M.S.) degree from a Master of Professional Studies (M.P.S.) degree track. This is the two-track model shown in figure 3. The figure shows that the same core component would apply to both tracks and be taken early in the programme. However, the M.S. students would devote a considerable portion of their electives to methodology and course work in support of their research project. This often requires a second year of study. The methodological and research-oriented requirements for an M.S. would normally preclude taking sufficient course work to become a functional specialist in programme management or policy planning, for example. Thus, it is suggested that a professional degree (M.P.S.) is preferred for such students, so that they have sufficient time to take the specialized courses in support of their speciality. In this track, the functional specialists would devote one-half of their programme to specialized electives. Moreover, a community-based experience, or programme- or policy-relevant experience, would be more readily acceptable as a capstone project for an M.P.S.-type degree. These considerations are important because they make it possible for students to complete a degree in one year instead of two, and they avoid the unrealistic expectation that functional specialists could and should be as expert in research methods as M.S. students, as well as becoming proficient in their functional specialities.

FIG. 3. The "two-track" model. Experience capstone can often be shorter than M.S. research projects. M.S. research practice usually requires a second year. Capstone is for integration in a speciality area

· Experience capstone can often be shorter than M.S. research projects.
· M.S. research practice usually requires a second year.
· Capstone is for integration in a specialty area.

The Workshop noted the fact that most applicants to such a programme would probably have a life sciences background, including sufficient biology and social sciences to be able to benefit from the core curriculum. However, students with social science backgrounds may not have sufficient background in biology. Since it is desirable to bring a diverse range of students and professionals into such a programme (e.g., economists, planners, administrators, journalists), it is recommended that levelling-off work in biology (or social sciences) be provided in order to minimize the barriers to such a programme. It is also recognized that the M.P.S. track is best suited to those with some prior work experience.

Sensitizing other specialists

Whereas figure 3 addresses the needs for training functional specialists whose core interests are in food and nutrition, it is also necessary to consider how to make the core component accessible to specialists in other sectors or disciplines, such as economics, agriculture, administration, public health, education, mass media, and so on. The Workshop provided three specific suggestions for accomplishing this. First, in the context of academic programmes, the core component discussed here could form the foundation for a minor in food and nutrition for those majoring in other fields of study. Second, in the context of in-service training, advocacy, and sensitization, some of the modules from the core component could become the basis for short courses for professionals in other sectors. Third, as noted in one of the keynote papers [6], it might be desirable to produce nutrition case studies (as monographs) that are written in the language and concepts of those other disciplines, for use in courses in those other disciplines, in order to provide "passive sensitization" to food and nutrition issues.