KT-Venn---PlainI struggle to explain to people what I do. It was easier when I was doing research and could say things like the following:

  • I’m figuring out how bacteria count to ten
  • I’m artificially evolving E coli
  • I’m seeing what bacteria live in the snot of small children (spoiler alert: a lot).

Now, as a consultant, I’m finding that I get met with more blank stares than when I used to have to explain the whole bacterial counting thing. “I do knowledge translation.” Oh, what’s that?  “I consult on areas where science meets policy.” Oh, that’s interesting! And all of a sudden the veggie tray looks riveting to my conversation partner and long story short the evening ends awkwardly.

It helps to know two things: Knowledge Translation is actually a THING, I didn’t make it up, and it comes from the field of medicine. Consider the volume of medical research that is completed every year, and the work load of doctors and public health officials, and you can see how there’s a need for people who can help make all that new knowledge accessible. This involves not just translating the nearly incomprehensible technical language to something understandable, although that’s a big part of it. More importantly Knowledge Translation is about figuring out the end-user’s needs, the barriers that keep them from accessing and acting on new knowledge, and setting up the organization and capacity for ongoing improvement.

I completed my Knowledge Translation certificate at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in the fall of 2014, and a great many of my fellow students were in the medical field. However, there have been a few of us who realize that this issue applies not just to medicine, but to environmental decision making as well. Consider monitoring in the oil sands area: what does the evidence say about impacts? What science is reliable, what science is not? A number of studies are coming out of the three-year Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program, what is the consensus about impacts here? What does this mean for legislation around environmental protection? How will foreign markets respond to news about environmental impacts, both good and bad? How should local communities advise their residents on the safety of wild foods?

Resource extraction projects are required to perform environmental monitoring, and as the province has established the Alberta Environmental Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Agency, the crown will be developing programs as well. What’s a rational and cost effective monitoring program? What questions should a monitoring program answer? How do you interpret the results?

Finally, academics are increasingly being asked to demonstrate how their research contributes to the greater good. This puts pressure on pure basic research, and is requiring scientists to build bridges to the policy or business community. How do you integrate research with policy development? What does a business need in order to innovate, and how does a basic researcher get involved?

Knowledge Translation is an evolving field, and its application to the issues Alberta faces is just in the infancy stages. I’ve met a number of government or consulting scientists who all have questions on how to make their work meaningful to their organizations. This requires understanding the barriers to the uptake of all this evidence. I’m curious, what barriers do you see when trying to access evidence for decision making in your organization?