February 3: Research Must Reach the Wider Public, says Associate Dean Sylvain Charlebois
The last thing Prof. Sylvain Charlebois wants to do is keep his research a secret. “As a researcher, I feel it is part of my duty to convey some of the knowledge we create to the wider public. We are part of a publicly-funded institution, so we have a responsibility to the public. Yes, it is challenging for any academic to translate for this audience, but it is also exciting.”
Charlebois, newly-appointed associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Management and Economics, has been writing “op-ed” articles for newspapers for over a decade. A recent piece he had published in the Globe and Mail, for example, discussed “Climate change, grain exports and a new world order in food.” It concluded: “What is happening to agricultural communities is hardly a crisis but rather a continuing recalibration between supply and demand.”
Charlebois is frequently interviewed in English and French by reporters and broadcasters about the business of food. Last semester he did interviews with media from British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. While the specific topics may vary ─ Charlebois says the B.C. conversations are usually about wine and produce, while the Quebec and Ontario reporters ask about poultry, eggs and milk ─ his research encompasses all types of food and agriculture.
He believes his interest in food systems, safety, policy and distribution makes him an excellent fit for the University of Guelph. He describes U of G as the “major league” of agricultural research and sees that as an excellent fit for a marketing expert focused on food. “There’s no place that would be more perfect for me.”
And he’s always been attracted to the cutting-edge issues. While studying at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Charlebois wrote his doctoral dissertation about the impact of mad cow disease on the Canadian beef industry. “That was one of the most difficult and demanding things I’ve ever done,” he says. “I had to interview cattle farmers watching the family businesses they’d built up over their lifetimes head towards bankruptcy because they couldn’t sell their cattle. In one family, the wife and children had moved eight hours away so that she could get a job and provide some income while the husband continued to look after the cattle.”
Despite the traumatic times, Charlebois says he was impressed by the kindness and generosity of the people he met. “I’d often be invited to stay for lunch, and I’d leave with steaks and homemade bread,” he says. That was his first visit to Saskatchewan, and it obviously made a lasting impression, as he returned to work at the University of Regina.
In 2008, Charlebois became associate dean at the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. In 2009, he took on the position of associate director of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (University of Regina/University of Saskatchewan), where he introduced and co-ordinated master’s and PhD programs in public policy. He sees this as excellent preparation for his new responsibilities at U of G. “I’ve done some good things in Saskatchewan, but I’m looking forward to starting a new chapter in Guelph.”
The new chapter will, he says, involve building solid relationships with the many communities connected with the University. “I am obsessed with relevancy; I want to be relevant to my students, to the business community.” Charlebois says that he emphasizes supporting students in their learning. “It’s not just about enrolment numbers. Students are very important stakeholders in the university community.”
Charlebois says that he’s known as a “macro-marketer” and explains that means he is interested in macro-economics and food systems and how these factors affect policy and marketing.
Food safety is another key area of interest. While working at the University of Regina, he and a team of researchers developed a systemic evaluation of food-safety procedures in 17 countries. In 2008, Canada was fifth (the United Kingdom was first). “There were some definite gaps in our food-safety practices as compared to some European countries,” he says.
In June 2010, when the second report was printed, Canada placed fourth (tied with the United States). This higher ranking, Charlebois says, had more to do with some other countries doing less well, rather than Canada making significant improvements. Canada earned lower scores for not having a system that was able to trace food “from farm to fork.”
Charlebois expects to continue work on this project and publish another report in 2011.
His family’s move to Guelph was delayed by a few weeks last summer as he and his wife welcomed their fourth child, a daughter, in mid-August.