Transforming scientific knowledge into action
Dr. Alex Bielak, Director of Science and Technology Liaison at Environment Canada (EC), says that when it comes to environmental sustainability, his team works to bring scientists and policy makers together.
“Establishing understanding between scientists and policy makers can be difficult because they tend to live in different worlds and have different priorities,” says Alex.
What Alex’s team does is called knowledge translation and brokering. The latter is a relatively new concept that first appeared in the health sciences field but translates well into the science and technology domain. EC recently identified the need for such activities in its Science Plan and created the Science and Technology Liaison Division to address this need.
Alex’s team is breaking new ground by implementing the concept in EC. “These concepts are only beginning to appear in the field of environmental sustainability.”Knowledge brokering
So what does Alex’s team do? It makes sure that scientific information is accessible to policy makers. The information needs to be communicated to the right people at the right time, in language that is appropriate for the audience. Alex and his team also help foster and maintain relationships between researchers and policy makers so that they can engage in collaborative problem solving.
“We want to make sure that the results of scientific research are communicated effectively,” says Alex.
In the past, policy makers didn’t have much input into what was being studied. Knowledge brokering brings the two groups together. It links the producers and users of knowledge, and ultimately benefits Canadians through better environmental management and protection.
Communicating science and technology
Alex and his team use the web as one tool to reach their audiences. They have posted a series of case studies on the impact of research (www.ec.gc.ca/scitech/). These articles provide specific information about various issues of particular environmental interest, such as detecting oil spills in difficult terrain or assessing the impact of drugs released into our environment.
His team also produces internal and external newsletters to keep people informed about developments in the most important issues in the field, such as water science and smog. And Alex’s group is now helping revamp EC’s Science & Technology presence online (www.ec.gc.ca/scitech) to make it more user-friendly.
“In a sense, you’re not broadcasting information; you’re communicating a variety of information to specific audiences. Our work is very much targeted to the users of environmental science and technology information,” says Alex.
Benefits to Canadians
Part of Alex’s job is working with communications professionals to bring EC’s success stories to Canadians and specialized audiences. Through case studies, his team clearly and concisely explains the problem and identifies what researchers did to find a solution, how this research affected management approaches or regulations, and how the solution is of direct benefit to Canadians.
For example, a story on fecal pollution of water shows how forensic techniques such as DNA fingerprinting of bacteria from water samples is used to identify specific sources of fecal pollution. The technique, called microbial source tracking (MST), is valuable for people who need to investigate water pollution and help mediate conflicts. The knowledge gained from MST research will also contribute to developing better protection plans for aquatic ecosystems, now required by many jurisdictions in Canada.
Breaking new ground
Alex has won a number of awards for his work. He was recently named one of only 50 alumni of honour by the University of Waterloo, his alma mater, for academic and professional achievements and for contributing to his community. His team also helped the National Water Research Institute’s website attain international recognition; it became the most-searched site for “water research” in the world.
“I’m excited to be part of this emerging field of knowledge brokering. We can have such a great impact on our world by helping to translate our scientists’ knowledge into action in our everyday lives,” says Alex.