Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Interweaving Knowledge Resources to Address Complex Environmental Health Challenges

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Interweaving Knowledge Resources to Address Complex Environmental Health Challenges

Article excerpt

Introduction

Environmental health problems arise in a wide array of locations and conditions with a broad range of potential hazards and outcomes. Addressing the diversity of challenges and factors that influence outcomes demands a diversity of knowledge resources and shared approaches. Working in full partnerships of mutual respect among wide ranges of expertise and experience can lead to multidirectional information exchange and be mutually beneficial during the research process and application of the science. For example, scientists and engineers can work with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) risk assessors and decision makers, public health professionals, community members, and other stakeholders to mitigate hazardous chemical exposures and adverse health effects. These partnerships have the potential to maximize research impacts by more effectively and quickly translating research to help solve problems and mitigate public health risks.

The terms "interdisciplinary" and "transdisciplinary" have been used to differentiate various levels of knowledge integration and partnership (Jahn et al. 2012; Mobjork 2010; Pohl 2011). "Community-based participatory research" is another term used to describe integrative approaches that engage community members (Minkler and Wallerstein 2010; O'Fallon and Dearry 2002). "Research translation" is also a term that can encompass integrative approaches when researchers partner with decision makers, stakeholders, and entrepreneurs to apply the science to real-life challenges (Dankwa-Mullan et al. 2010; Pennell et al. 2013). Although all of these terms describe approaches that draw on and engage resources outside of traditional academic environments, none of them alone convey the breadth of resources and depth of partnerships required in some of the more complex environmental health problems. Furthermore, "disciplinary" can imply constraints or limitations, leaving out expertise in areas that might not be considered a "discipline," such as community members' expertise in the details of their daily lives and culture.

Here, we use the term "interweaving" to describe how the National Institute of Environmental Health Science (NIEHS) Superfund Research Program (SRP) has incorporated all of these approaches and a very wide range of knowledge resources in both formal and informal multidirectional partnerships toward research-driven, solution-oriented activities. The widely diverse resources are woven together to create a knowledge fabric that is permeable, flexible, adaptive, and without hierarchy of importance or value. Resources form the warp and weft of the fabric, weaving together to increase the tensile strength and build capacity to improve public health. This fabric is strengthened as distinct borders of contributing resources blur, partnerships are built, and resources are shared. Motivation, ideas, knowledge, resources, and enthusiasm from different people, institutions, and agencies weave together to tackle problems that can be just as complex as the resources they bring to bear. The diverse resources are like the parts of a quilt that are layered in multiple dimensions with different fabric types and textures. Our intent in introducing the term "interweaving" is to move away from restrictions and preconceptions associated with conventional terms to highlight the potential of using diverse knowledge resources, perhaps more diverse than what conventional terms imply.

Integrating science with its user community is a recognized mechanism for conducting environmental health research, demonstrated by NIEHS programs such as the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program, Partnerships for Environmental Public Health, and the SRP (NIEHS 2015a). What makes the SRP arguably unique is the very wide range of knowledge resources--from geoscientists to community members--that is brought together in full multidirectional partnerships to solve real-life problems and reduce disease burdens. …

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