Knowledge Mobilization Advice From SSHRC / Les recommandations du CRSH concernant la mobilisation des connaissances

Knowledge Mobilization advice from a research funder is necessarily generic but the advice provided by SSHRC is a great starting point for grant applicants to begin to craft a specific knowledge mobilization strategy. Just don’t leave it to the last day to start!

Les recommandations des organismes de subventions concernant la mobilisation des connaissances (MdC) sont nécessairement générales. Celles du CRSH, toutefois, fournissent aux candidats un point de départ solide pour commencer à mettre sur pied une stratégie de MdC. Mais n’attendez pas à la dernière minute pour commencer!

strategyAnyone completing a SSHRC grant application needs to develop a knowledge mobilization strategy. For those fortunate enough to be at a Research Impact Canada university help is close at hand. But for everyone else SSHRC has provided some advice.

SSHRC starts out by underselling their advice. They speak about how the guidelines will help with dissemination of research: “to whom should research results be communicated; how is the process of communicating research results best mapped”. But there is little on dissemination and much on engaged methods of knowledge mobilization.

Don’t get me wrong. Communicating research results to end users/beneficiaries is critically important but it is not enough. We know from the research on research use that making research results accessible is necessary but not sufficient to change behaviour (read anything by Sandra Nutley from Research Unit for Research Utilization). We need to engage with end users to identify their needs so researchers work on what is important to stakeholders not just what researchers think is important (see this article and a stakeholder engagement report by Kids Brain Health Network).

And beyond stakeholder engagement which identifies research priorities we need to practice engaged methods of dissemination and co-production. SSHRC provides a number of examples of this in their advice to grant applicants:

• Meetings with knowledge users, especially at the outset of the project, are an effective vehicle for forging strong and lasting connections.

• When building relationships with organizations, build links across multiple levels, from front-line, program and policy staff to executives.

• To produce knowledge mobilization products that meet users’ needs, researchers can use or repackage existing materials, or develop new ones, in concert with the users and their identified needs.

• Larger projects typically employ a project co-ordinator. The use of knowledge brokers, who have specific skill sets, can be effective.

• Ultimately, the more proactive and multifaceted the approach researchers take with users, the more successful and durable the relationship.

• Successful projects often adopt more than one outreach medium in their knowledge mobilization plan.

• All research teams, but especially those engaging in co-production of knowledge, should outline at the outset of projects the roles and responsibilities of all participants to ensure the voices of all team members, including partners, are represented at all stages of the project.

These are great examples covering the gamut from engaged priority setting to engaged dissemination to engaged co-production of research. Kudos to SSHRC for these.

But here’s the limitation of this advice. It is only generic. Like the impact advice provided by the Research Councils UK, advice from funders to applicants can only be generic. How an applicant in the history of English theatre will mobilize knowledge is different than how an economist working in sustainable business practices will mobilize knowledge. But both need to be informed by the advice from SSHRC.

Applicants need to take the generic advice and develop a specific (“bespoke” as my UK colleagues like to say) knowledge mobilization plan for their grant application. You do need to meet with knowledge users (first bullet in the list above) but which knowledge users, when will you meet, how will you recruit them, and what pre-existing relationships will you build on? This level of specificity is needed for your knowledge mobilization strategy.

As we recommend in our recent publication about supporting knowledge mobilization and impact strategies in grant applications you need to start with a generic impact pathway (like the co-produced pathway to impact) and generic advice (above) and use your own research, stakeholders, activities, partners and indicators to develop a specific impact pathway and specific knowledge mobilization plan.

There is no cookie cutter approach. Don’t leave this section to the day before the application is due. The research plan and the knowledge mobilization/impact plan need to be writer concurrently so each will support the other.

And for help call your local knowledge mobilization practitioner – oh yeah – if you’re at a Research Impact Canada member university!

Connecting Impact Pathways to Actual Impacts / Raccorder la trajectoire à l’impact

Researchers are crafting impact strategies in grant applications. Are they getting any help from their universities and their institutional research administrators?

Dans leurs demandes de subvention, les chercheurs mettent au point des stratégies d’impact. Reçoivent-ils de l’aide pour ce faire de la part de leur université et des administrateurs de la recherche?

Fast Track Impact logoMore from the world of impact in the UK, this time a reflection on a post by Mark Reed and Sarah Buckmaster from February 2016. Sarah and Mark compared the impact pathways from research teams who had been awarded the highest scores for impact in the Research Excellence Framework 2014. For more on REF 2014, see this journal club and last week’s post.

The seven studies presented span health, social sciences and humanities with impacts on policy, professional practice and culture – this diversity suggests the 10 common elements of impact pathways are not unique to any discipline or sector. The 10 common elements are: clear connectivity from overall vision to objectives and impact; specificity; tailor made impact; build in flexibility; assign responsibility – name names; demonstrate demand; highlight collaborative partnerships; don’t ignore sensitivities; think long term; record everything.

I’m not going to go into detail in each of these because Mark and Sarah have done that in their post.

ARMA logoWhat I will reflect on is the role of the university helping researchers craft these specific impact pathways in their applications. ARMA – the association supporting university research administrators (those people who are hired to help you craft your grant applications) – has a specific group interested in impact. It is not just the job of the grant applicant to ensure impact strategies incorporate these 10 key success elements. It is also the job of institutions to support researchers crafting their grant applications. How many ARMA members receive specific training not only as REF officers collecting the evidence of impact but also in supporting impact strategies in grant applications? This list of 10 key success elements could form a checklist for ARMA members to use to not only assess strategies at application review before submission but also to build capacity of researchers before they start writing the application (a new product idea for Fast Track Impact – you can thank me later, Mark).

At York University (Toronto, Canada), we have published on our process for supporting impact in grant applications. We also lead Research Impact Canada, a network of 12 universities building capacity to support impacts of research. We don’t have a formal impact assessment process like the REF but most Canadian funding programs require the equivalent of impact pathways. Because of this requirement we are sharing tools and building expertise to support impact at the institutional level. This is only now coming onto the radar of CARA (the Canadian ARMA) with an impact planning and assessment workshop I am delivering on May 7 at the CARA annual conference.

It would be interesting to ask the authors of these highly successful impact strategies what support they received from their institution during the grant application process. This would demonstrate if there is existing impact expertise in research administrators or if there is a skills gap and an opportunity for institutions to invest in capacity building to support impact which, in turn, will support success in the REF. It is a little late to start to build capacity to support impact in an application that won’t be funded until 2018 at the earliest and therefore won’t likely contribute to impacts in REF 2021. But Mark and Sarah advocate thinking long term. REF 2026 is just around the corner, at least in terms of impact which can take years after the funded grant project to manifest.

And don’t forget to call Canada. We are happy to share our supports for impact in grant applications and look forward to learning from UK experts as well. CARA and ARMA are already collaborating on accreditation for research administrators. Maybe impact could be part of this exchange. Just ask @JulieEBayley.

Watching Impact in the REF and How It Informs the Canadian Context / Le REF en observation : comment l’impact s’y manifeste, et son influence sur la situation canadienne

The Research Excellence Framework is a system wide research assessment exercise that includes assessment of the various non-academic impacts of research. As the UK prepares for REF 2021 Research Impact Canada is piloting impact assessment in Canada. Not because of any reporting requirement but because we should understand and communicate the impacts we are making. It’s the right thing to do.

Au Royaume-Uni, le Research Excellence Framework est un exercice d’évaluation de la recherche appliqué à l’ensemble du système d’enseignement supérieur, qui prévoit l’évaluation des nombreux impacts de la recherche en dehors de l’université. Tandis que ce pays prépare son REF de 2021, au Canada, le Réseau Impact Recherche réalise son propre projet pilote d’évaluation de l’impact. Non pas parce qu’une autorité quelconque nous l’impose, mais parce que comprendre et communiquer les effets que nous provoquons… c’est ce qu’il faut faire, tout simplement.

For 10 years Research Impact Canada (RIC) has been leading the development of institutional knowledge mobilization practices that create the conditions to maximize the social, economic and/or environmental impacts of university research. Our vision statement is:

We will maximize the impact of university research for the social, cultural, economic, environmental, and health benefits across local and global communities.

If we say we will maximize impact we needed to figure out a way to assess the impact of the research we were helping to mobilize. We looked to the UK Research Excellence Framework for inspiration (for more on REF and why it is important see this recent journal club entry). The REF required all UK universities to articulate the impacts of research using guidelines (page 26 here) and completing an impact case study template. There is much (not all) good about the REF. But there is much in the work of RIC that is not captured in the narrowly construed REF definitions of research and of impact. There is also a decoupling of the efforts made by institutions (as reported in the environment data) to support impact and the impact cases themselves.

The Evaluation Committee of Research Impact Canada did a deep dive into the REF and developed our own adaptation of the REF impact assessment guidelines and case study template. The major changes are summarized in the table below:

Changes between REF and RIC impact assessment table

View this table as a PDF

That’s what we have done. What are we doing?

We are piloting the RIC research impact assessment guidelines and impact case study template on one example from York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit. We have also delivered our first impact assessment workshop to scientists and knowledge brokers at the research-policy interface at Eawag, the Swiss water research institute. We received good feedback from them and will be incorporating this into successive iterations of the guidelines and template. Ultimately we will roll this out through RIC member universities and beyond to provide a tool for researchers and institutions to collect the evidence of impact and inform different means of disseminating stories of impact so our various stakeholders (funders, partners, governments, and the public) can see the difference that universities make on society, the economy and/or the environment.

Our work in Canada is timely as HEFCE reports it has just finished consultations on REF 2021 and are about to review and analyze over 370 responses. We can continue to learn from each other. The Canadian and UK contexts are different. The main difference is the driver. We don’t have a REF in Canada so we have greater leeway to construct research impact assessment tools that work in our contexts. But our contexts are also not really that different. UK and Canadian funders require grant applicants to express the potential impacts of their research and the plans (and budgets) for creating those impacts. Now Canada also has a mechanism to facilitate the collection and reporting on the evidence of impact that was inspired by the REF but adapted to meet the needs of the Research Impact Canada network.

Give us a call, HEFCE. We’re happy to share as you pour through those 370 responses!

Canada is looking for a Chief Knowledge Broker / Le Canada en quête d’un courtier de connaissances en chef

Canada is searching for a Chief Science Advisor. They are looking for someone with an outstanding track record of scholarship. What they really need is a Chief Knowledge Broker.

Le gouvernement canadien cherche à pourvoir le poste de conseiller scientifique en chef. La personne recherchée doit posséder un bagage de connaissances hors du commun. Ce dont le gouvernement a besoin, en fait, c’est un courtier de connaissances en chef.

See the full job ad here

Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science

Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science


Justin Trudeau and Kirsty Duncan are seeking a PhD scientist with a strong record of peer reviewed publications and research management. They are seeking a PhD scientist to “focus on how scientific information is disseminated and used by the federal government, and how evidence is incorporated into government-wide decision-making”. Sounds like knowledge mobilization to me!

To be clear, they are not looking for a PhD in implementation science (although that would be excellent). They are looking for one of Canada’s greatest molecular biologists, cosmologists, mechanical engineers, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists etc. to step into a role that defines knowledge mobilization. Tell me how someone with an H Factor of +50 is going to know the first thing about how scientific information is disseminated and used in government decision making?

To be fair they do consider that “experience in one or more of the following areas would be an asset:

• involvement in scientific reviews within legislative or regulatory processes;
• public scientific communication;
• promoting transparency and integrity in scientific research; and
• evaluation of scientific or research programs or projects.”

Public scientific communication and involvement in legislative processes are considered to be one of four things (hence optional) for a job that is all about “how scientific information is disseminated and used”.

Kirsty and Justin, these need to be at the top of your list of mandatory experience, not buried as an optional nice to have. You need to be looking for someone with expertise in the research to policy interface. Canada’s best particle physicist will not be able to provide much help when asked to advise on sensitive topics such as vaccines, GMO foods or First Nations. You don’t need a specialist PhD. You need a process specialist who has demonstrated excellence facilitating evidence use in all sorts of disciplines.

Good luck with the search. Don’t forget to come back to Research Impact Canada for advice on seeking science advice.

[Sorry gentle readers, the competition closed February 13, 2017. You don’t need to rush to update your resumé for this job. But maybe the Chief Science Advisor will see that a PhD in whatever actually needs a knowledge broker to be successful.]

Six Actions to Mobilize Knowledge / Six actions pour mobiliser les connaissances

On January 31, 2017, Bev Holmes and Allan Best summarized their recent paper in Evidence & Policy that seeks to make sense of the complexity of knowledge mobilization by pointing to six key actions that can be taken by initiative managers and key influencers.

Le 31 janvier 2017, Bev Holmes et Allan Best ont résumé leur récent article, paru dans Evidence & Policy, dans lequel ils cherchent à expliquer la complexité de la mobilisation des connaissances. Ils indiquent six actions clés qui sont à la portée des gestionnaires d’initiative et des grands influenceurs.

Puzzle piecesOn February 9, 2017, I wrote in Mobilize This! about a paper I published with colleagues that outline five determinants of successful knowledge brokering. Bev Holmes and Allan Best have done something similar. The paper I did was based on a transnational comparison of knowledge brokering practices. Holmes & Best come at it from complexity studies. They advocate working with complexity rather than trying to avoid it.

Their six key actions are: co-producing knowledge, establishing shared goals and measures, enabling leadership, ensuring adequate resourcing, contributing to the science of knowledge-to-action, and communicating strategically.

Our five determinants of successful brokering are: build trust; develop capacity; co-construct knowledge; understand the political, social and economic context; and build culture.

The differences are interesting but so are the similarities. Both articles reference co-producing/co-constructing knowledge. Ensuring adequate resources is similar to building capacity. Enabling leadership is part of building a culture of knowledge brokering. You need to understand the political, social and economic context (Phipps et al) before you can establish shared goals and measures (Holmes & Best).

What is also interesting from Homes & Best is they identify two types of knowledge mobilizers who can be involve in each of their six actions. They identify “those who: (1) are managing specific knowledge mobilization initiatives (initiative managers), and (2) are in a position to make the environment more receptive to change (key influencers).”

This distinction is important as we consider the increasingly professionalized cohort of knowledge mobilization practitioners. These different cohorts of knowledge mobilization practitioners are managing projects (initiative managers) and environments (key influencers) and this starts to create organizational structures for resourcing knowledge mobilization. This may not be relevant to the many knowledge mobilization practitioners who work as solo operators in their organization but for those working in units we will expect to see various “levels” of practitioners.

We will always need front line knowledge brokers – the initiative managers of Holmes & Best. But we will also see a managerial level and a leadership level. As we consider the key competencies for knowledge mobilization practitioners (a group @JulieEBayley and I call research impact practitioners) we will need to understand how these competencies map onto different levels of practitioners from the brokers doing the work, the people managing the brokers and the people who are leading systems of knowledge mobilization.

Will the competencies vary or will the types of work undertaken to practice the competency change?

How to Influence Policy / Pour influencer les politiques

Sending your research to policy makers will have little influence on their decisions; however, if you understand these 10 elements then you have a better chance at creating the conditions where your research can inform policy.

Le fait d’envoyer vos travaux de recherche aux décideurs aura peu d’influence sur leurs décisions ; mais si vous comprenez bien ces 10 éléments, vous saurez mettre en place les conditions dans lesquelles vos travaux auront de meilleures chances d’influencer les politiques.

10 Things to know about how to influence policy with research

For all the academic researchers (and their supporters and partners) in the audience, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues. I love this short but highly informative summary synthesizing many years of scholarship and practice on research to policy impact. Louise Shaxon is a co-author, someone who has worked on the ground in policy influence.

This document illustrates how difficult it is to influence policy makers and gives tips on how to overcome some of the barriers. The top 10 are below. Check out the document for tips on each of these that will help to move your research evidence towards policy.

1. Know what you want to influence
2. Know who you want to influence
3. Know when to influence – this is often harder to know than the first two
4. Build relationships and networks
5. Policy development is not a linear process
6. Policy making is inherently political
7. Plan your engagement
8. Focus on ideas (not problems) and be proposition (i.e. give them a solution)
9. It takes time
10. Monitor, learn and adjust along the way

A note on three of these:

#6. Policy making is inherently political. A senior bureaucrat said to me once, “Evidence doesn’t vote”. Evidence is only one input into the policy making process. This connects to #4 Relationships and Networks. You (and your evidence) won’t succeed alone. Make the connections to other parts of the broader policy system (advocates, associations, the public, media) to align policy advocacy efforts.

#7. Plan Your Engagement: This document recommends you go beyond dissemination methods to more engaged methods of uptake such as public events and meetings. I don’t think this goes far enough. We know from the PARIHS framework that uptake of evidence needs to be facilitated in the context of decision making. Meetings are good. Facilitated workshops of your evidence with policy makers, especially if the workshop is jointly facilitated by a policy maker, will create greater opportunities for policy makers to engage with your evidence. And yet I will go one step further. Seek opportunities to collaborate with policy makers to co-create the evidence that they need and is also important to your scholarship. This is not them contracting you to do their work (although that also has a role) but about finding areas of mutual interest that produce excellent academic scholarship that can also be used in decision making. See Bowen & Graham for more on engaged scholarship vs. knowledge transfer.

#10. Monitor, learn and adjust along the way. In addition to the actions in the document, I recommend you remain in touch with the policy makers so that you can capture the evidence of the impact of your efforts. You won’t know: 1) if your research was used; and 2) if it was did that use informed a change; and 3) if it did what difference did the change make to anyone. This doesn’t have to be onerous or formal. An e mail or phone call every six months reminding them of your engagement efforts and asking if the evidence was used, implemented and if it made a difference will help you track from your research to your engagement efforts to eventual policy impact.

Thank you, Louise and colleagues, for a concise and useful document to guide policy influence. It’s not an easy process but you have provided guidance to overcome some of the barriers.

The document can be downloaded from ODI here.

The ResearchImpact Network – What’s in It for You? / Le Réseau Impact Recherche – qu’avez-vous à y gagner ?

A few universities are considering joining the ResearchImpact network. I was asked recently to identify what a university might get for its annual membership fee of $5,000. Essentially, what is the value proposition for membership?

Quelques universités songent à se joindre au Réseau Impact Recherche. On m’a demandé récemment ce qu’une université membre pouvait attendre de son adhésion annuelle, au cout de 5 000 $. En clair : quelle est la proposition de valeur du Réseau ?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is Canada’s knowledge mobilization network with 12 universities from St. John’s to Victoria all investing in their own knowledge mobilization and related activities and all investing $5,000 annually to fund network operations. While we do not have an active recruitment drive we are always interested in speaking to universities who wish to learn from our diverse practices and contribute to the network so we can all grow our skills. What’s in it for you?

Part of the value proposition is articulated in our Strategic Plan.

• We build Canada’s capacity to be a leader in knowledge mobilization by developing and sharing best practices, services and tools, and by demonstrating to relevant stakeholders and the public the positive impacts of mobilizing knowledge.

• We will maximize the impact of university research for the social, cultural, economic, environmental, and health benefits across local and global communities.

• We believe that academic research contributes to social, cultural, economic, environmental, and health benefits across local and global communities.
• We believe that the university research enterprise encompasses research, scholarship and creative activity by faculty, students and staff across all disciplines.
• We value community, industry and government partners as active participants in conducting research.
• We believe that knowledge mobilization services reflect the capacity and opportunities of institutional members.

Essentially we are a community of practice of institutional knowledge mobilizers all with different skills using different tools with different mandates in different organizational constructs. See the figure below that summarizes this diversity

RIR Unit service models

It is this diversity that is the value proposition. You will learn from other universities to bolster your own practice and help maximize the impacts of your research. Some examples of our practices – there are more:

• Memorial Univesity: Strong focus on public engagement; use of as a tool for knowledge brokering
• University of New Brunswick: Social Policy Research Network with a focus on knowledge mobilization to inform provincial policy
• Université du Québec à Montréal: Services aux Collectivitées – a community based knowledge brokering function
• Carleton Univesity: 1125 @ Carleton is a Living Lab model
• York University: Central Office of Research Services model including support for knowledge mobilization strategies in grant applications; research impact assessment
• University of Guelph: Research Shop model
• Kwantlen Polytechnic University: Service learning model
• University of Victoria: Research partnership model

Your $5,000 buys you access into these different practices so you can take from the network what fits in your context.

We believe that knowledge mobilization helps universities participate more fully in the federal government’s emerging innovation agenda which is being drafted around the core concept of inclusive innovation. We can more fully participate in inclusive innovation by connecting research in all disciplines to partners from all sectors (public, private and non-profit) to create impacts on local and global citizens. RIR is the only network in the world focused on institutional knowledge mobilization to maximize the impacts of academic research.

Membership has its privileges.

For more information about please email or email me directly at

How Can Universities Contribute to Inclusive Innovation? / Comment les universités contribuent-elles à l’innovation solidaire?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) worked with the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and 16 other universities and stakeholders to draft a letter to Ministers Bains, Chagger and Duncan outlining how universities can contribute to Canada’s innovation strategy which is increasingly being described as “inclusive innovation”.

Le RéseauImpactRecherche-ResearchImpact (RIR), en collaboration avec la Fondation de la famille J.W. McConnell et 16 autres universités et intervenants, a rédigé une lettre destinée aux ministres Bains, Chagger et Duncan pour expliquer comment les universités peuvent contribuer à la stratégie du Canada en matière d’innovation, de plus en plus souvent qualifiée d’« innovation solidaire ».

The letter in response to “Positioning Canada to Lead: An Inclusive Innovation Agenda” is posted on the RECODE section of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation website. The letter describes the opportunity facing Canada. It states, “Innovation is key to human development. It is imperative to move beyond innovation for innovation’s sake to purposeful innovation that contributes socially and economically while also creating positive and / or reducing negative impacts on our natural resources. The term “inclusive growth” refers to an important and insufficiently acknowledged economic opportunity.”

The letter outlines some ideas for policy, program and talent opportunities that serve as a starting point for conversations with government. There are also examples, including RIR, appended to the letter. Some ideas directly relevant to RIR were present in all three categories:

Policy Ideas (this describes knowledge brokering, a major role for RIR)

• Expanding support for multi-disciplinary and cross-sector solutions-generating collaboration platforms as core features of the innovation ecosystem; as the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences said it is necessary to “bring researchers from different disciplines together with leaders in all levels of government, the private sector and civil society…”. There is a diverse and growing spectrum of collaboration platforms, including change and social innovation labs.

Program Ideas (this describes the RIR network)

• Creating incentives for regional and national platforms/networks for campus community collaboration and holding those platforms to account for short-term (three-year) outcomes that will generate long term (5-10 year) economic, social and environmental impacts.

Talent Ideas (this describes service learning and graduate student internships, key knowledge mobilization methods)

• Support co-ops and work-integrated learning programs in all academic faculties (not just business) to help students build the skills and experience required to enter the work force. Include all types of businesses from SMEs and non-profits to multi-national corporations in these programs.

RIR continues the discussion with McConnell and the other stakeholders to further develop these policy, program and talent ideas in order to trigger a substantive discussion with government. As identified by the Conference Board of Canada universities need to diversify beyond narrowly construed notions of technology transfer and commercialization if they are to contribute fully to an inclusive innovation agenda. This diversification includes experiential learning for undergraduate and graduate students as well as knowledge mobilization connecting all disciplines to partners from the public, private and non-profit sectors.

The letter had 18 signatories including the Presidents of RIR members York University, University of Guelph, University of New Brunswick, as well as representatives from RIR members University of Victoria, Wilfrid Laurier University, and David Phipps signing as the RIR Network Director.

Knowledge Mobilization, Research Impact, and the Changing Nature of Academic Work / La mobilisation des connaissances, l’impact de la recherche et la nature changeante du travail universitaire

That’s the title of a research article written by Matthew McKean, Conference Board of Canada. The article reviews the ResearchImpact network and the emerging importance of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s academic research enterprise and Canada’s inclusive innovation agenda.

Voilà le titre d’un article de fond publié par Matthew McKean, du Conference Board du Canada. L’auteur examine le Réseau Impact Recherche et l’importance de plus en plus affirmée de la mobilisation des connaissances, dans la conduite de la recherche universitaire au Canada comme dans le programme d’innovation inclusif que le pays s’est donné.

Conference Board of Canada logo

According to their website the Conference Board of Canada is the foremost independent, evidence-based, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada. They are dedicated to building a better future for Canadians by making our economy and society more dynamic and competitive. They have decided that a more dynamic and competitive Canadian economy and society needs knowledge mobilization. And knowledge mobilization needs ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR), Canada’s knowledge mobilization network.

The article (available for free download here) describes the changing nature of academic work making the case that bibliometric citations are no longer sufficient to capture the diverse impacts of academic research. This is seen most keenly in research grant applications most of which now require some form of impact statement (what impact will arise) and knowledge mobilization plan (how you’re going to get there). The article cites literature and interviews with researchers and knowledge mobilization practitioners (including myself and RIR brokers Bojan Fürst from Memorial University and Cathy Edwards from Carleton University).

The paper is summarized in four points “at a glance”:

– “Universities need to invest in institutional supports, such as dedicated knowledge brokers, for knowledge mobilization, as they currently do for technology transfer and industry liaison

– University-based researchers would benefit from faculty evaluation criteria that incentivizes high-impact, interdisciplinary social, economic, environmental, cultural, and health research

– The Pan-Canadian ResearchImpact network supports and facilitates knowledge mobilization and collaboration among faculty and student researchers, as well as community, industry, and government partners

– A network approach reduces the barriers between disciplines and enhances collaboration supporting research impacts in communities across Canada”

Importantly, the paper makes the point that knowledge mobilization activities complement traditional commercialization and industry liaison activities. This is important because universities beyond the 12 RIR campuses are not making efforts to maximize the contributions of research to Canada’s economic, social or environmental progress.

All our universities have services that help researchers connect to industry and to commercial markets but they only serve those few disciplines aligned to commercial outcomes. Many of our researchers in social sciences, humanities, creative arts and many STEM disciplines will never work with industry, file a patent or start up a company but their research might be relevant to public policy, professional practice or social services. If we rely solely on traditional methods of commercialization and industry liaison we will fail to maximize the impacts of much academic research. We will fail to contribute to what Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada is calling inclusive innovation.

ISED states that “Innovation is the path to inclusive growth. It fosters a thriving middle class and opens the country to new economic, social and environmental possibilities” and that everyone has a role to play. “This collaborative approach is essential because every sector of society—from the business community to universities and colleges, the not-for-profit sector, social entrepreneurs and Indigenous business leaders—pulls some of the levers that drive innovation, growth and well-being.”

Be prepared to hear a lot more about inclusive innovation as the current review of Canada’s innovation agenda concludes and begins to report out to Canadians.

That’s what makes this report from the Conference Board of Canada timely. Academic research institutions can contribute to an inclusive innovation agenda by adopting knowledge mobilization practices as well as traditional supports for commercialization and industry liaison.

Big thanks to Matthew McKean for researching and writing the article. Thanks also to knowledge mobilization colleagues Peter Levesque (Institute for Knowledge Mobilization) and Purnima Sundar (Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health) who provided a critical review of the manuscript for Matthew.

Human centred innovation / L’innovation centrée sur l’humain

The Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences (“The Federation”) made a submission to Canada’s Innovation Agenda. The Federation argues that “we need to bring creativity and imagination to bear on complex problems and understand the human process at the heart of innovation”. This includes strengthening connections and knowledge flow among humanities and social sciences (HSS) researchers and other partners from governments, civil society, academia and business.

La Fédération canadienne des sciences humaines (« la Fédération ») a suggéré des orientations au Programme d’innovation du Canada. La Fédération soutient que « nous devons rivaliser de créativité et d’imagination pour dénouer des problèmes complexes et comprendre le processus humain au cœur de l’innovation ». Cela suppose notamment le renforcement des liens et des échanges de connaissances entre les chercheurs des sciences humaines et leurs partenaires du gouvernement, de la société civile et du milieu des affaires.

Federation logoLed by Minister Bains (Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development), Canada is developing a new innovation strategy and is soliciting input from individuals and organizations across Canada. The Federation, drawing on their representation of over 160 universities, colleges and scholarly associations and a community of over 91,000 researchers and students, made a submission that promoted the human element of innovation.

The Federation’s submission contains three areas of focus including:
• expand experiential learning for all students through an expansion of the Post-Secondary Industry Partnership and Cooperative Placement Initiative to include HSS.
• increase fundamental research into human thought, behaviour and experiences. This will increase HSS research funding to be a minimum of 20 percent (=approximately double current levels) of Canada’s federal research portfolio within 10 years.
• strengthen connections and knowledge flow among HSS researchers and other partners from governments, civil society, academia and business to help Canada find innovative solutions to pressing complex social challenges.

This last area deals with knowledge mobilization. This third section of the submission cites examples from SFU, OCAD U, Ryerson and Concordia to illustrate mechanisms to connect HSS research(ers) to society. While individual examples of knowledge mobilization abound, mainly in individual research programs and research centres, there are fewer examples of institutional supports such as those practiced by the 12 universities in ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR), Canada’s knowledge mobilization network. The submission calls for “a supportive national framework for such collaborations to enable scaling up of local innovations”. It then proceeds with recommendation #3 which includes the following:

Significant federal funding should be devoted to the creation and expansion of university-based innovation and cross-disciplinary hubs to address the broad range of social and economic complex challenges facing Canadians. For example, the government should enhance support for multi-disciplinary knowledge-mobilization networks, such as the ResearchImpact Network (, to scale up existing services that connect the public, private, not-for-profit and higher education sectors

Minister Bains will hopefully take note when presented with these recommendations. Canada needs a pan-Canadian knowledge mobilization strategy that will build on the lessons learned by the 12 RIR members and strengthen knowledge flows in communities and campuses across Canada.

Collectively these three recommendations from The Federation create the call to action for a human centred innovation strategy. Tony Surman (CEO, Centre for Social Innovation) has written in the Globe & Mail that Canada’s ‘innovation agenda’ isn’t dependent on just tech – it is also dependent on social factors and social innovation. This is critical to answering the call of Daniele Zanotti, CEO of United Way Toronto & York Region, who says we will not charity our way out of complex social issues. We need new combinations of knowledge and expertise that employ a human centred model of innovation.

Thanks you to The Federation for promoting the critical role of HSS in Canada’s innovation system. As part of this innovation Canada needs a pan Canadian knowledge mobilization strategy. Canada needs ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche.

What Are Universities Doing for Social R&D? / Que font les universités pour la RD dans le domaine social?

David Phipps was invited to participate in a retreat to explore ways of introducing social research & development into Canada’s innovation policies. He reflected on the long tradition of university research and the relatively recent experience at partnering to develop that research into impacts on society. Thanks to Social Innovation Generation, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and all the participants for making the retreat possible.

David Phipps a été invité à effectuer une retraite pour réfléchir aux différents moyens d’intégrer la recherche sur le domaine social et son développement aux politiques canadiennes concernant l’innovation. Cela lui a permis de mettre en rapport la tradition séculaire de la recherche universitaire et l’expérience relativement récente des partenariats visant à transformer cette recherche en impact sur la société. Merci à Social Innovation Generation, à la Fondation de la famille J.W. McConnell et à tous les participants qui ont rendu possible ce moment de réflexion.

University of Bologna

University of Bologna

Picture this: Bologna, Italy in the year 1088. The first and still oldest western university was founded. That was 968 years ago. Oxford University was founded 8 years later in 1096.

Universities have had almost a millennium of teaching and research and only recently (ok, as far back as the 1880s for US land grant universities) have universities and the researchers that work in them been asked to consider the potential social impacts of their work. The trouble is, universities have also had almost a millennium to become really resistant to change. After all, universities were established as places for research and teaching without the pressure of external influences.

But only in the last ten years in Canada have researchers been required to develop a knowledge mobilization plan (SSHRC) or a knowledge translation plan (CIHR). Since 2014, UK institutions have been assessed and financially rewarded based on economic, social and/or environmental impacts of their research. It is through knowledge mobilization/translation that research(ers) can have an impact. And when research informs a new social policy or social service then that research(er) is contributing to social R&D – research & development.

Academic researchers do research (R in R&D). They rarely do development (D in R&D). If universities are now expected to contribute to social R&D we have to do that by working in collaboration. Researchers don’t make products, industry partners do. Researchers don’t develop public policies, government partners do. And researchers don’t (usually) deliver social services, community partners do.

If universities are now expected to contribute to social R&D we need development partners to complement our research. This isn’t new – Bowen & Graham wrote about this in 2013 and Sarah Morton wrote about this in 2014. What is new (unless you’re a land grant university with a 140-year tradition of agricultural extension!) is that some universities, including those in the ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) network, are developing institutional mechanisms to enhance the contribution of research to development and ultimately impact.

There are many ways we do this including investments in public engagement, community service learning, community based research and engaged scholarship all of which can be understood to fall under the umbrella of knowledge mobilization (and if you want to have the definitional debate feel free – just not here – we don’t get stuck in definitional dystopia).

One example of research responding to a need identified by community and creating both academic and community benefits is York’s example of the Life Skills Mentoring Program at the Youth Emergency Shelter of Peterborough. You can see a short video of this example or read the deep case study in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

And there are many more examples from the RIR universities including the seven we presented on Parliament Hill in February 2014.

It is working.

Canadian research is successfully contributing to social R&D. Yet while Canadian researchers have a long track record of engaging with non-academic partners the institutional commitment to social R&D is less robust. Notwithstanding the 30 years’ experience institutions have investing in commercialization / technology transfer / industry liaison, the institutional investments for knowledge mobilization and related activities are not yet wide spread.

The RIR universities are 12 examples of these different investments.

It is working.

Recommendations for Universities Seeking More Effective Collaborations / Recommandations aux universités en quête de collaborations efficaces

Interaction report coverThe CarnegieUK Trust recently released InterAction, a report that examined how universities and non-profit organizations can collaborate to influence public policy. Much of it reflects what York University is already doing but also points out where we can improve.

Le fonds Carnegie UK Trust vient de publier InterAction, un rapport qui examine les moyens pour les universités et les organisations à but non lucratif de collaborer afin d’influencer les politiques publiques. En grande partie, ce rapport reflète ce qui se fait déjà à l’Université York, mais il indique aussi des pistes à suivre pour nous améliorer.

“The future for influencing public policy involves the co-production of knowledge.”

The report makes nine recommendations for universities, six recommendations for community organizations and four recommendations for funders all designed to enhance community campus collaborations for policy impact.

The nine recommendations are below along with reflections on how York University fulfils or fails on these recommendations:


York University

Provide embedded gateways through which third-sector organisations and other publics can make contact with relevant researchers in what are perceived to be impenetrable and siloed institutions.

York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit (KMb Unit) uses a systematic approach to respond to requests for knowledge brokering from non-academic organizations (70%) and faculty (30%). The TD Community Engagement Centre (CEC) is located in community to provide access to York expertise and services

Employ specialist knowledge exchange workers to facilitate interaction between the worlds of social science, policy and practice. These will be more effective if accorded recognition, security and career pathways.

York’s Knowledge Mobilization Unit employs two full time knowledge brokers and the CEC has one full time manager.

Invest in mechanisms to develop and support long-term relationships with selected third-sector partners and networks.

In addition to supporting collaborations between researchers and non-academic partners York University has had a knowledge mobilization partnership with United Way Toronto and York Region since 2006.

Explore innovative ways of providing spaces for intersection of vertical and horizontal knowledge flows.

The KMb Unit, CEC, and EE (see below) are all examples where vertical (within the university) intersects with horizontal (engaging beyond the university) knowledge flows.

Encourage secondment opportunities (both inward and outward) as a means of facilitating knowledge exchange and ‘boundary spanning’.

York does not have formal secondment opportunities.

Develop training and staff development programmes to build the capacity of academics to work with third-sector organisations, to understand their worlds, and to include codes of practice towards mutual benefit.

The KMb Unit has a series of workshops that it delivers to the York community and their non-academic partners on an annual basis. Workshops include KMb planning, KMb evaluation, social media, clear language writing and design. These workshops can be tailored to academic units and to Organized Research Units. York does not have a code of practice but the KMb Unit promotes the use of the Position Statement on Authentic Partnerships from Community Campus Partnerships for Health.

Develop training and staff development programmes to build an understanding amongst staff of policy processes and how to engage with policy worlds. Consideration should be given to involving third sector partners in such programmes.

York does not have specific training on the policy process; however, we could explore partnering with the School of Public Policy and Administration to contribute a policy specific session to our knowledge mobilization workshops.

Embed the use of Project Advisory Groups including policy and practice partners relevant to the research project, as a means of informing the research, promoting impact and developing relationships. Representatives from VCOs should be paid for their contribution and valued for their insight as well as their role in dissemination.

This is an area where we can do better. The KMb Unit had a Joint Advisory Committee with equal representation by faculty and community but it was the faculty who were hard to recruit and retain. The CEC has an Advisory Committee including York and Community members.

Explore further the role which service learning might play in building engagement with the third sector, in addition to its other merits.

York is building a campus wide experiential education (EE) program led by the Assoc. VP Teaching & Learning . In addition the Faculty of Health Agents of Change is a faculty-wide initiative designed to help health students develop the skills and abilities to create a positive impact.

So how are we doing? We are excellent in many places and clearly have room to grow in others. Most promising is the emerging Experiential Education program being led by Assoc. VP Teaching and Learning. This has the potential to transform how we teach and how students learn and, if we do it right, how to create positive impacts on communities.

How does your institution stack up?

There Are No New Ideas Part 3: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

In this blog series I visit some old (and I mean old) literature to illustrate how ideas of knowledge mobilization and research impact have very deep roots. Part 3 looks at an essay by Abraham Flexner from 1939 (yes, 78 years ago). Abraham Flexner (1866-1959) was an American educator whose 1910 report is credited with 20th century reform of medical education in Canada and the US. He cited the German model of medical education that was based on biomedical research and knowledge setting up his appreciation for research and its eventual impact on medical practice. On the surface his essay makes the case for the protection of basic science without need for application or impact and thus doesn’t seem to tell today’s story of knowledge mobilization and impact. However, reading between the lines he makes the case for excellent basic research as the underpinning of excellent research impact.

Harper's October 1939Flexner, A. (1939, October). The usefulness of useless knowledge. Harpers, 179, 544-552.

Flexner begins his essay recalling a conversation he had with George Eastman who proclaimed Marconi (credited with inventing wireless transmission in 1896) as the “most useful worker in science in the world”. Flexner’s response was “Marconi’s share was practically minimal”. By that he meant that Marconi was the last person in a long line of scientists including Maxwell, who first joined electric and magnetic forces to develop the theory of electromagnetism in 1865, and Hertz, who worked on electromagnetic waves between 1886-1889. Flexner claims that Marconi was just a “clever technician”. “Hertz and Maxwell were geniuses without thought of use. Marconi was a clever inventor with no thought but use”.

This is Flexner’s thesis, that research should be supported without thought to its use.

Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.”

However, by linking Marconi’s “useful” invention with the “useless” knowledge created by Maxwell and Hertz, Flexner has joined up research with impact and created a logical pathway from one to the other. This is what we do when creating a knowledge mobilization plan or when collecting the evidence to write a research impact case study.

Flexner also describes the reverse.

Not infrequently the tables are turned, and practical difficulties encountered in industry or in laboratories stimulate theoretical inquiries which may or may not solve the problems by which they were suggested, but may also open up new vistas, useless at the moment, but pregnant with future achievements, practical and theoretical.”

This describes stakeholder engaged research where the challenge felt by non-academic stakeholders informs subsequent academic research. We know this today from folks like Bowen and Graham, who describe the critical role of engaging end users in research. However, Bowen and Graham didn’t reference any literature before 1997!

Flexner essentially describes the model of the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF is a centralized research assessment exercise which includes the institution’s ability to describe the impacts of research beyond the academy. The REF is not concerned with creating future impacts but requires institutions to collect the evidence of research impact that had already occurred. 80% of the REF score is the excellence of the research with 20% being the impact of that excellent research. Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism, if linked to Marconi through evidence describing an impact pathway from one to the other, would have scored highly on both research excellence and research impact.

Research impact was introduced in the 2014 assessment exercise. Flexner described the need for excellent research and its ability to inform impact in 1939.

There really are no new ideas.

Read the rest of this blog series:

There Are No New Ideas Part 1: Scholarship and Social Agitation

There Are No New Ideas Part 2: Politics and the English Language

There Are No New Ideas Part 2: Politics and the English Language

In this blog series, I visit some old (and I mean old) literature to illustrate how ideas of knowledge mobilization and research impact have very deep roots. Part 2 looks at an essay by George Orwell from 1946 (yes, 70 years ago) which makes the case for clear language. Orwell advises writers to use “the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning”.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Orwell, G. (1946). Politics and the English Language. 

The essay provides five examples of less than clear language and it is important to note that three of the five are from scholarly sources. Each of these examples uses two common qualities that contribute to unclear language: staleness of imagery and lack of precision. Orwell states that,

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not….prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse

Short words not long phrases contribute to clear communication. Orwell uses what he calls “modern English” to re-write an excerpt from Ecclesiastics

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness….The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek.

The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness”. Orwell issues a call for using clear words to clearly express meaning. He points out how phrases have replaced words such as,

Break: render inoperative

Protest: militate against

Touch: make contact with

Cause: give rise to

Usually: exhibit a tendency to

We are also making grammar more complicated.

The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining)

He also claims that the “attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say ‘In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption’ that than to say ‘I think’.”

Is this sounding familiar, especially to those trained in clear language writing and design principles? Orwell points out that:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself…Could I put it more shortly?” And “Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

He creates further parameters to guide writing in clear language:

 (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

While not at the end of the essay, I think the essay can be summed up by his statement, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”.  By this he means that we should “make pretentiousness unfashionable” by paying attention to our meaning and make it as clear as possible by making it as short as possible and avoiding anything ugly.

All of this should resonate with knowledge mobilization practitioners seeking to translate the results of research into clear language.

For more on clear language, see our paper on the ResearchSnapshot clear language research summary format. You can also full text search the online database of research summaries.

Read the rest of this blog series:

There Are No New Ideas Part 1: Scholarship and Social Agitation

There Are No New Ideas Part 3: The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge