AFRC Research Highlights
News and research from the Atlantic Forest Research Collaborative

Getting foresters, researchers and end-users on the same knowledge exchange page

Author: Kevin “Dani” Danielle

Posted on Jul 21, 2021


Getting the latest information from those who produce it to those who need to use it lies at the core of decision making by governments, industry and the general public. In order to act upon the most relevant, up to date information, the process of knowledge exchange – getting it from producers to users – requires a seamless, efficient process, yet science communication experts don’t concur on what this process looks like. “Knowledge exchange” (or KE for short) and the efforts to measure its effectiveness in current practice is the basis of this article.

A team of university researchers (at two institutions) and professionals at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and specifically the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) are working together to bridge the communications gaps between government, scientists, industry, landowners, stewards, and the general public. Their research goals and deliverables are centered on the efforts to organize the terminology and best practices around “knowledge exchange.” The team defines KE as the two-way flow of information from producers and users of knowledge.

The KE research team collaborative is co-lead by (in order of appearance below):
Dr. Alana Westwood, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University;
Dr. Vivian Nguyen, an assistant professor at Carleton University; and
Dr. Matthew Falconer, a knowledge exchange analyst at NRCan-CFS.

Image courtesy of Matthew Falconer and Alana Westwood

The KE co-leads are joined by research assistants Tyreen Kapoor, Kim Klenk, Jenna Hutchen to form the core team. Their research is funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Dalhousie University and Carleton University. The project has also been supported by Forest Information Services Division in NRCan-CFS’s Planning, Operations and Information Branch.

In the act of knowledge exchange, there’s a relationship between producers and users. Producers are the generators of accurate knowledge. We often think of them as researchers, but they can be anyone - foresters and environmental managers, university research scientists, local knowledge holders, such as Indigenous Elders. Similarly, users can be anyone including civil servants, elected officials (governments), Indigenous land stewards, industry, landowners, teachers, NGOs and other general stakeholders. In one situation knowledge producers (a scientist) can also become users (someone who reads articles on the latest discoveries).

Most instances of sharing knowledge are what the KE research team call one-way exchange, which is to say: someone goes out in the world and finds evidence of something being true (knowledge), reports about it (in a research article or technical report), and puts that information somewhere users (who want or need this knowledge) can find it. Most of the time, this is a research journal. Unfortunately, not all research journals are accessible to users, the specific information is hard to find or isn’t published in a timely way. Further, it might also be hard to understand because it is written for the research community, and not other users.

That’s where knowledge exchange professionals at the CFS – like Falconer – intervene. They devise ways to engage the general public and stakeholder groups. They package information, using tools like Simply Science to make it understandable by the general public. This includes another dimension of one-way exchange: the information is left freely available for someone to find.

Naturally, a one-way exchange like this is neither the only option for sharing information, nor the best one for all situations. Part of the work the KE team are doing is not only naming the different kinds of knowledge exchange but organizing existing practices in how scientific information pertinent to forestry is actively being shared.  Their work is revealing how things are working (and not working). The typology in brief appears in the image below:

Image courtesy of Matthew Falconer and Alana Westwood

Comic visualization of knowledge exchange typesComic depiction of knowledge exchange types, in French

Comic by Sarah Perez. Image courtesy of Matthew Falconer and Alana Westwood

What complicates matters for KE best practices lies in how the usage of “knowledge exchange” is by no means consistent or universal in its adoption. Search results from the largest scientific article databases by the KE research team found there’s over a hundred unique terms in usage (90 in English, 14 in French). The most common terms in English were “knowledge transfer,” “knowledge exchange,” “science-policy interface,” and “co-production.”

What’s more, the KE team found that many of the articles around the theme “knowledge exchange” were themselves alternative theories of the same (using different words) and at other times were policy recommendations for KE-based approaches. Only a minority of studies (20%) tried to measure the effectiveness of knowledge exchange models. A similar proportion included or referred to Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge as part of their assessment.

That’s where the KE research is currently focussinig their interdisciplinary work - detailed qualitative analysis of keywords, search strings and coding. Indeed, the team didn’t stop with the database searches: they also conducted case study interviews within NRCan-CFS, specifically with KE specialists located in five of the six regional centres. These amounted to 15 total interviews with nine people, for 16 hours of recordings. They sought to capture how they talk about knowledge exchange during structured interviews, using transcriptions and systematic coding techniques to track the usage of key words and phrases.

The research team expects to finalize results sometime in fall 2021. Part of these results will include a network map of forest knowledge producers and users, alongside the full qualitative analysis of their main findings from the database searches and case study interviews. We look forward to hearing more about these results and getting to see the materials produced to help science communication flow more smoothly between the links in the knowledge chain.

To stay updated on the project and its forthcoming publications, subscribe to its ResearchGate project page, and find more information from Westwood Lab or the Social-Environmental Research and Applications Collaborative.

Subject area contact: Alana Westwood and Matthew Falconer.
Media contact: Kevin Danielle.