Knowledge Transfer Activities in Social Sciences and Humanities: Explaining the Interactions of Research Groups with Non-Academic Agents

Olmos-Penuela, J., Castro-Martinez, E., & D’Este P. (2014). Knowledge transfer activities in social sciences and humanities: Explaining the interactions of research groups with non-academic agents. Research Policy, 43(4), 696-706. doi:10.1016/j.respol.2013.12.004


The aim of this research is to achieve a better understanding of the processes underlying knowledge transfer (KT) in social sciences and humanities (SSH). The paper addresses: first, the extent of SSH research groups’ engagement in KT and the formal KT activities used to interact with non-academic communities; and second, how the characteristics of research groups may influence engagement in various types of KT. The empirical analysis is at research group level using data derived from a questionnaire of SSH research groups belonging to the Spanish Council for Scientific Research (CSIC). We find that KT activities are based on relational rather than commercial activities. The most frequent relational activities in which SSH research groups engage are consultancy and contract research. We find also that the characteristics of research groups (e.g. size and multidisciplinarity) and individuals (e.g. academic status and star scientist) are associated with involvement in KT activities and that a deliberate focus on the societal impacts and relevance of the research conducted is strongly related to active engagement of research groups in all the modes of KT considered in this study. From a managerial perspective, our findings suggest that measures promoting a focus on the societal impact of research could enhance research groups’ engagement in KT activities.

This article is one of the few articles I have read that examines knowledge transfer (KT) specifically in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). For the purposes of this review (and for most other purposes, actually) knowledge transfer is the same thing as knowledge mobilization. Spend time arguing this from an intellectual perspective if you wish, but I don’t find arguments about the distinctions in terminology to be helpful from a practical perspective. We’re busy enough doing it to argue over what someone else wants to call it.

The study is presented in the context of an emerging focus on the societal impacts of SSH research. Traditionally public policy has focused on how STEM research can meet technology needs. The authors cite a number of studies that point to the need to include SSH research in research impact assessments. Key for Europe is work from the EU 7th Framework and Horizon 2020 who the authors quote, “The complexity of the Grand Societal Challenges demand alternative solutions and new ways to exploit our academic competences in the best and broadest way possible. This is not done by losing the Social Sciences and Humanities, but by using it”. The authors conclude that this disconnect between policy and practice creates challenges for SSH. “When SSH practices are analysed through lenses built for science and technology fields, the societal contribution of SSH research is not properly captured”.

This empirical study focused on research groups, not individual researchers, possibly an important distinction. It collected data from 97 research groups at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research looking at characteristics of research teams as they relate to performance in five different KT activities including:

  1. Consultancy – Technical advice services, commissioned by non-academic organizations, that do not involve original academic research.
  2. Contract research – Original research activities carried out by academics and commissioned by non-academic organizations.
  3. Joint research – Original research activities involving formal collaborative arrangements to conduct research undertaken by both academic and non-academic organization.
  4. Training – Learning activities, such as courses, offered by the academic community (or demanded by non-academics) which are tailored to socio-economic organizations’ needs (business, government and professional groups). This activity is different from traditional and formalized courses such as degree or masters courses.
  5. Personnel mobility – Flow of academics to other social environments (e.g. secondments to firms or to public organizations

The authors collected data to test five hypotheses about the relationship between research group characteristics and KT. The five hypotheses were derived from the literature

Hypothesis 1 – Research groups conducting research that places a strong focus on the societal impact of research are more likely to engage in KT activities.

Hypothesis 2 – The more multidisciplinary the research group, the more likely it is that the group engages in KT activities.

Hypothesis 3 – Larger research groups are more likely to engage in KT activities.

Hypothesis 4 – Research groups whose leaders have higher academic status are more likely to engage in KT activities.

Hypothesis 5 – Research groups whose leaders are star scientists, are more likely to engage in KT activities.

The only source of data was researcher self-assessment. There was no attempt to corroborate findings by surveying non-academic research partners.

The data showed that 51% of research teams engaged in consultancy, 46% in contract research and 39% in joint research. The authors do not state the % of research teams engaging in any one or more of the KT activities so it isn’t possible to indicate the total prevalence of KT activity but from the data presented it may be as much (or little depending on your perspective) 51%.

Larger, multidisciplinary research groups that are concerned about societal impact and led by a “star” researcher are more likely to engage in KT activities. The latter dimension (“star” researcher) is consistent with earlier findings referenced in this journal club post that showed a correlation between French researchers and public engagement activities. The authors conclude that engaging with beneficiaries of research and “transferring valuable knowledge to social agents is not an automatic process and requires a purposive focus on the potential applicability of research in SSH fields”. This means KT won’t happen by itself, you have to work at it, plan it and support it.

While the authors have demonstrated a correlation between characteristics of research groups and KT activities I’m left with a question about causation. Do researchers who engage externally become more successful researchers or do they become successful researchers who then engage more externally? I don’t think it is an either/or question but issues of academic incentives and tenure will inform the discussion.

One of the key conclusions in this paper is that “these results show that the characteristics of the SSH demand an approach that prioritizes relational and collaborative activities over commercial ways of engagement”. While much STEM engagement is relational through collaborative research agreements, the technology transfer/commercialization paradigm dominates the university/industry interface. When supporting the engagement of SSH research(er) with broader society the focus will need to be on more relational and less transactional processes.

Questions for brokers:

  1. The authors conclude that “measures promoting a focus on the societal impact of research could enhance research groups’ engagement in KT activities”. How might you create incentives to encourage researchers to focus on societal impact?
  2. Of the five KT methods examined (consultancy, contract research, joint research, training, personnel mobility) how would you rank those in terms of most to least effective at maximizing the impact of research(er) beyond the academy?
  3. Canada’s service industries (including cultural, heritage, education and public administration) sectors produce 70% of GDP compared to goods producing industries (seeStatsCan). What does this say about the relative potential of STEM (via commercialization) and SSH (via knowledge mobilization) to contribute to Canada’s economy?

ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) is producing this journal club series as a way to make evidence on KMb more accessible to knowledge brokers and to create on line discussion about research on knowledge mobilization. It is designed for knowledge brokers and other knowledge mobilization stakeholders. Read this open access article. Then come back to this post and join the journal club by posting your comments.

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