Academics do research for a reason – because we want to learn things and we want others to know about what we are learning. Universities are major drivers of the development of knowledge in all modern societies, and the research done in universities often has great importance for society. Yet the evidence suggests that neither universities corporately nor individual researchers are organized to ensure that our research knowledge flows well to others who could benefit from it. This is especially so in the social sciences and humanities and some of the professions; processes and supports are stronger in the natural and applied sciences.
This is not is meant to suggest that all university research should have a practical purpose, should be intended to shape practice or should be judged by whether it has some external impact. Interest-driven, fundamental research must remain an important part of what universities do.
My research team at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, has been studying the process of “knowledge mobilization” (the term used by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) for several years. Our work includes empirical studies, conceptual work and practical projects all concerned with strengthening the relationship between research, policy and practice. Although our primary focus is on education, our connections with researchers looking at similar issues in other fields and in other parts of the world shows that the situation is not too different from one field to another or one place to another.
Based on our work and our reading of the work of others, we make six recommendations for universities and individual researchers to improve the impact of research:
1. Recognize that the impact of research is a diffuse process that depends largely on interpersonal connections, relationships and persistence. Publishing one’s results, while necessary, is not sufficient as a way of mobilizing knowledge. People get their knowledge about research from diverse sources, but in general they are more strongly influenced by what their colleagues or neighbours do or say than by anything they read.
2. Recognize that knowledge mobilization, like any other activity, takes time, energy and organization. While many researchers do put effort into sharing research findings in various ways, it is not reasonable to expect individual researchers to do all the work of knowledge mobilization. Rather, universities need to build systems to support various aspects of this work, such as alternative forms of communication, working with the media, working with third parties to share research findings, supporting plain language writing, and so on. On the other hand, our work has found that researchers who do more knowledge mobilization also, on average, do more traditional dissemination such as writing peer-reviewed publications.
3. While the Internet has great potential as a vehicle for mobilizing knowledge, web strategies also need to take into account how people and organizations really work. The reality is that most web pages get very few visitors, most documents on the web are rarely viewed or downloaded, and most discussion boards don’t generate much discussion. Much of the effort to share research knowledge through the Internet is wasted because it is passive.
4. Knowledge mobilization is about knowledge, not institutional promotion. It is about helping people understand the subject, not impressing them with the importance of the university or the researcher. Less attention should go to the results of individual studies and more to cumulative knowledge based on multiple studies with consistent findings.
5. In many fields, potential users of research have little capacity to find, share and use research, so even the most valid and vital knowledge will not get the take-up it deserves. Universities and researchers can improve this situation by building ongoing relationships with key service providers, so that over time these organizations become more adept at understanding and using research to guide their work.
6. Graduate students can act as bridges. In many fields, notably the professions, graduate students are also experienced practitioners who have the potential to connect research to practice in effective ways. Yet universities often ignore students’ practical experience while their work settings denigrate the value of research. If graduate students were trained explicitly in how to act as knowledge brokers, they could make a huge contribution.
Dr. Levin holds a Canada Research Chair in the department of theory and policy studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. He was previously deputy minister of education in Ontario.