Environments and health signature initiative Federal partner forum

Executive Summary

The environments in which we live, work, learn and play affect our health and well-being. However, Canada can do more to fulfill its research potential in the field of environments and health. In response, CIHR has developed the Environments and Health Signature Initiative that includes three critical research components (etiology and measurement, data platform enhancements and intersectoral prevention research) that will focus on three priority research areas: agri-food production; resource development; and urban form.Footnote 1

A federal partner forum was held on September 18, 2014 in Ottawa to bring together representatives of federal government departments from health and other sectors to discuss and build partnerships on the Environments and Health Signature Initiative. Thirty-seven participants attended the meeting from a cross-section of federal departments and agencies, funding agencies and non-governmental organizations.

Meeting objectives

  • Identify mutually beneficial opportunities for synergy, co-investment and collaboration (such as leveraging existing data holdings and joint funding opportunities);
  • Facilitate engagement of government stakeholders in the design of funding opportunities to ensure these respond to government needs and priorities for research.
  • Gather input and define/identify other government department roles in the governance of the Environments and Health Signature Initiative;
  • Identify federal relationships to leverage with private sector, industry associations, P/T/municipal stakeholders and international linkages.


Participants identified major potential benefits to collaboration on the Initiative, which included access to data and data infrastructure across sectors; shared expertise among academic and government scientists; and opportunities for capacity enhancement. Overall, working across sectors is expected to yield results beyond what one department or sector can do alone.

There was a high degree of understanding across cross-sectoral tables of the nexus approach and how to apply it in the priority research areas. A common theme to discussion was the necessity of frameworks to approach the complexity of issues within and across the nexus areas. Leveraging existing data platforms and predictive models to advance research was also a recurring theme. Lastly, consideration of sex and gender was identified as an important consideration in all research priority areas.

Key discussion points

Agri-Food Production Nexus Area

Representing the departments from “farm to fork”, discussions focused on how the regulations of these departments intersect and how the whole-of-government regulatory approach impacts health outcomes. Researchers, arms-length to the regulatory function, can look at the joint impact of government regulatory functions across Ministerial sectors and address, for example, whether these regulations lead to adverse or improved health outcomes and whether their economic benefits outweigh associated health costs. Key considerations for research:

  • Research could leverage key data sources for air, water and biodiversity (e.g. land use data); food consumption patterns and consumer goods; and food security. Considerations include improving the comparability, compatibility and usefulness of data; ensuring capacity to use this data and integrating emerging technologies to exploit big data.
  • Different disciplines, multiple levels of government and access to different data sets are needed to address the complex questions of this Initiative.

Resource Development Nexus Area

Participants suggested the need for a comprehensive framework to support studies of health and resource extraction. A framework would highlight data components, gaps and needs and could be used to guide analysis across all extractive industries and populations. Comparative case study approaches were proposed to understand the impact of resource production on the physical environment and community wellness across regions. Key considerations for research:

  • Integrating traditional knowledge and community participation processes in scientific studies is important. This will increase the likelihood that communities can and will make use of the findings.
  • The public needs to understand the data. We need to be ready to address their questions and concerns (e.g. Are contaminants toxic? What are the cumulative effects of exposure for our children? What are safe levels of exposure?).
  • We need to bring together advanced scientific methods and technologies (e.g. geospatial platforms) from a wide range of disciplines to improve predictive modelling. All phases of resource development, the impact of regulatory gates, socio-economic impacts and cumulative exposures across the human life course need to be taken into account. Benefits and costs across sectors much be examined.

Urban Form Nexus Area

In discussing topics for this nexus area, participants discussed the multiplicity of interacting issues facing urban communities such as adaptation to climate change, land use and planning, infrastructure and transportation. Key considerations for research:

  • The municipal level provides an important policy environment for intersectoral research questions that impact on many facets of urban planning.
  • Inexpensive devices to aid data collection on air and water quality can be put to good use.
  • Research is needed to inform decisions about whether and how up-front investments in urban infrastructure are likely to impact on both injuries and chronic disease and how this translates into health care costs and socio-economic losses and gains.

Partnership Opportunities

The Environments and Health Signature Initiative intends to bridge gaps between people, disciplines and sectors so that we can address priority problems in environments and health. CIHR wants to engage with partners to find solutions that will create new data linkages, research, policy and programming in order to tackle the problems that affect us all. CIHR intends to build a community of researchers and knowledge users from multiple sectors within and outside of health to share findings and translate knowledge into action.


The forum provided an opportunity to exchange with federal departments on areas of common research interest in each of the nexus areas; explore areas of synergy and complementarity; and identify promising avenues for collaboration. Five areas that need further work as we continue development of this initiative:

  1. Since clear policy directions line up with the three nexus priorities of the Initiative, this affords new possibilities for working together and developing new approaches to tackle these issues;
  2. Regulatory work is ongoing – we need to look at how to join up research funded with regulatory needs (complementary);
  3. Front line work of departments is very important and we need to think about potential alignments;
  4. There are intersectoral committees in place – we need to more fully consider options for linking up funded scientists with those tables to mobilize and harness tables; and
  5. There are many data sources and repositories that we’ll need to tap into; these are important resources for this initiative.

CIHR thanked participants for their collaboration and looks forward to ongoing dialogue as we develop a vibrant environments and health research, policy and practice community.


Footnote 1

More information on the initiative.


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