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Saving the World Is All a Hat Trick


A pivotal figure in both national and global environmental organizations, David Brackett skillfully juggles his many hats while building bridges between science and policy. He's senior advisor on international conservation for the Canadian government, a member of the United Nations task force on environmental sustainability, and chair of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC). Ask him what he thinks is the key to developing such an illustrious career and he'll tell you that it's grabbing onto life's opportunities. "While a large part of a person's career progression depends on flexibility and job performance," says Brackett, "it's not always about planning it ahead as much as being open to responding to opportunities."

His IUCN job is particularly challenging and time-consuming. As chair since 1996, he coordinates about 8000 individual scientists and government officials loosely organized into 125 different specialist groups. While each group focuses on a particular threatened plant or animal, Brackett has the Herculean task of bringing their work together to underline and spread a single message--that today's extinction crisis is a global responsibility.

Brackett has presided over countless regular assemblies of SSC's Steering and Executive Committees and makes a concerted effort to get involved in several of the Specialist Group meetings, hopping around the globe to do so. While the SSC doesn't manage the conservation of endangered species per se, its job is to provide governments with assessments and recommendations based on the best available science on which they can make sound policy decisions.

How did he end up in such a global role? Soon after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, with a bachelor's degree in zoology in 1974, job prospects opened up in the North West Territories (NWT). Field surveys of caribou and moose in the desolate arctic tundra led to a governmental posting dealing with regional wildlife management practices. Here Brackett got his first taste of international diplomacy when in the 1980s the United States began to show an interest in drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuges and the NWT became concerned about migrating caribou herds. "I became very involved with many negotiations," Brackett explains, "and because the NWT had a strong representation at the IUCN, this gave me the opportunity to see the problem in an international context."

A few years earlier, Brackett had worked on the implementation in Canada of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and became familiar with their permits and treaties. This experience opened the door to a posting at the CITES agency's Swiss headquarters, where he worked as global management coordinator for two and a half years until 1991.

Luckily, IUCN headquarters was located in the same area and connections quickly began to solidify. "Very soon after that, I was basically drafted to be chair on sustainable usages at the IUCN. It was because people knew me and I was known to be relatively neutral to them and by that time I had enough name recognition that I was the candidate," reveals Brackett. Looking at the international scene, he is convinced that Canadians have an edge because of all the constant political struggles occurring in-house, both federally and provincially, not to mention aboriginal issues. "We [Canadians] are constantly faced with negotiations, complications, and adaptations, so when we get to the international level, it's just a continuation of it."

Looking back on his own globetrotting career, Brackett offers some simple advice on what it takes to make it on the international scene. Topping his list is volunteering--both nationally and internationally--for the amazing opportunities it offers to make connections that otherwise may be hidden. Brackett feels strongly that joining various committees of many multinational associations from the very start of his career has allowed him to gain the understanding of internationalism and global issues which is considered such a valuable commodity in today's world.

Not surprisingly one of the most important skills for him is a physiological one--the simple ability to adapt to jet lag. Attending countless international negotiation sessions on biological diversity wearing one of his many hats means that Brackett ends up traveling at least 100 days of the year. This year alone he has been to Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Australia. People who take too long to acclimatize to their foreign surroundings risk appearing more like a zombie than a quick-minded advisor at those international summits. "I do a lot of travel where I cross six to nine time zones and arrive 2 to 3 hours before I go into a meeting, and if you can't do that, it's [going to be] a problem," warns Brackett.

Problems can also arise when it comes to working in an unfamiliar cultural setting. Making that decision to work internationally, especially when it involves environmental and health issues, might mean visiting third-world countries where you can't expect to stay at a Best Western every night. For Brackett personal adaptability and a willingness to work cross-culturally are vital. "If you have a lot of trouble adapting to the idea that you're going to eat a meal sitting on the floor, then you know you're probably in the wrong game," he adds.

All in all Brackett sees a bright future for today's young Canadian scientists looking for opportunities abroad. The increase in investment by the Canadian government through infrastructure and program funding has caught the attention of many. "I think that science is a very international pursuit and I think that as Canadians pursue excellence in science at home, opportunity to pursue excellence in science globally goes hand in hand," he suggests.

Sometimes getting ahead means taking chances and doesn't necessarily involve career forecasting. Brackett believes that many scientists have become too focused and specialized and miss out on opportunities of a lifetime because they are not willing to give up a bench job for a desk job, or leave a field job for a management position. "I think a lot of people have opportunities offered them that they just can't see," he highlights, and "they discount them because they're not mobile or because they're not willing to adapt to a different style of job."

No small feat to be sure, Brackett is the first to admit that he got where he is today through opportunities that presented themselves, with a double dose of ambition and luck thrown in for good measure. "I have to say that I was reasonably open to trying a range of things and not focus on a particular subject," Brackett affirms.

"I've always considered that my career has moved along the track of science and policy, working primarily at the interface between the two," he goes on to explain. "So when somebody in a science career asks, why did you leave bench science, I don't believe I did. I left the specific pursuit of discovery of knowledge to a more direct pursuit of the application of knowledge."

That pursuit, and his passion for saving species, will no doubt continue to see Brackett jetting to the four corners of the world for years to come.

Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at

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