Public Benefits from Public Research

David Phipps (RIR – York) wrote this guest post for  It was originally published on August 3, 2011 and is cross posted here with permission.
I have been invited by the University of Texas School of Public Health, Research Into Action project, to the Centers for Disease Control National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media to debate the position that Canada has a knowledge translation secret. I look forward to this discussion with Stephen Linder (The University of Texas School of Public Health), Pimjai Sudsawad (Knowledge Translation Program Coordinator, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research), and Rick Austin (Research Into Action project), because I get to brag about Canada and our KT successes.
We’ll start from the (debatable) position that Canada has a KT secret. There is an evidence gap here. There are also excellent examples of KT from around the world. Nonetheless, there is a widely held perception that our KT secret has resulted from (or resulted in) public investments in national KT institutions like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, Canadian Partnerships Against Cancer, Mental Health Commission of Canada, and Canadian Council on Learning, all with a KT mandate. Canada also has ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR), the only national network of university knowledge mobilization units in the world (to our knowledge).
For argument’s sake, let’s accept that Canada has a KT secret – the question becomes why? Canada has a strong history of public institutions. Compared to the US, Canada has less private health care and fewer private options for education from K-12 to higher education. Using General Expenditures in R&D (GERD) as a metric, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has shown that Canada’s public sector invests relatively more in R&D than does Canada’s private sector. On June 28, 2011 Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council released its report on Canada’s innovation performance in 2010.  The report recognizes that “Canada’s overall business expenditures on R&D lag behind international innovation leaders. These numbers are trending down when they should be trending up.”
Since Canadians invest proportionally more public funding in R&D and likewise have fewer private options in health care and education, I propose that Canadians expect a return on their investments in public research so that research benefits policy and practice in health and education as well as in other sectors. That’s the Canadian socially democratic model.
If this is true, so what? How can we translate this to other jurisdictions? How can other countries create an expectation of public return for public investments in research?
The US did this in 1980. The Bayh Dole Act created a national standard for technology transfer (that other university knowledge transfer) that was predicated on a demand for a return on public investment in university research. Overnight the Bayh Dole Act created the US technology transfer profession that has grown into a leading technology transfer market. Technology transfer is a recognized profession with international associations like the Association of University Technology Managers, standards, accreditation, and established tools and metrics. The knowledge transfer/translation/mobilization industry is in its infancy by comparison, with haphazard experiments in KT service and only an emergent scholarship on the science of connecting research to use. Following international scholars like Sandra Nutley and Carol Weiss, Canada has a growing cadre of scholars, a few emerging graduate programs and established leaders such as Carol Estabrook, Jonathan Lomas, Réjean Landry, John Lavis, Ian Graham, Jeremy Grimshaw, Ben Levin, and Andreas Laupacis, to name just a few, who have developed national and international reputations as KT researchers. Is there similar bench strength for KT science in the US?
Given that Canada invests in KT science and service, what can other jurisdictions do to derive public benefit from public investments in policy and practice relevant research?
The US needs a social Bayh Dole Act. A social Bayh Dole Act would require that universities make investments in mobilizing research with the potential to inform social, health, environmental and education policy/practice. Universities and other publicly funded research institutions would need to make efforts to connect researchers to practitioners and policy makers. This happens at an individual researcher level. It also happens in large scale discipline specific organizations such as the National Center for the Dissemination of Disability Research in the US and the Social Care Institute for Excellence in the UK. The University of Texas School of Public Health has the Research Into Action project. Like Canada’s RIR network, a social Bayh Dole Act would require that universities invest in an institutional capacity for knowledge translation/mobilization units the way they currently do for technology translation.  A social Bayh Dole Act would seek to derive public benefits from public investments in research.
Canada does this by nature. The US can do this by legislation.
I look forward to developing these ideas further at the conference in Atlanta with Stephen, Pimjai, and Rick.

5 thoughts on “Public Benefits from Public Research

  1. @AlexBielak sent this comment via e mail:
    While David likely had to stick to the language of KT in his interesting post, a number of Canadians (including David) HAVE been involved in developing a secret weapon! We call it K* (KStar), a concept that is taking root in various quarters.
    In his day job David uses KMb (Knowledge Mobilization), I am attached to KT and KB (Knowledge Translation and Brokering) and others use a plethora of different terminology, including Knowledge Management, Adoption, Transfer and Exchange and other terms which collectively we term K*. Ultimately we want to go beyond the terminology (important though it may be to some) and help unify this dynamic field that is emergent now in a variety of sectors beyond health.
    Building on the Special Workshop on KT and KB, held as part of the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Montreal last year (Proceedings posted at, and other events internationally, a group of Canadians working with colleagues across the globe has initiated a low key consultation on how to dramatically move the field forward.
    The support and interest we have received has been overwhelmingly positive and we are poised to broaden the discussions soon. Watch this space, or chat with David or I.
    Dr. Alex T. Bielak

  2. As Alex Bielak points out, several terms and concepts are still used to describe the process of knowledge mobilization (KMb) – including knowledge utilization, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, knowledge management, knowledge translation, diffusion of innovation and research utilization. Four of the most frequently used terms used in several countries are knowledge translation, knowledge transfer & exchange (KTE – which is used by our friends in the U.S. at, knowledge utilization, and knowledge exchange.
    Like David Phipps, I have a preference for using Knowledge Mobilization (KMb) as I think it more accurately describes a broader and more inclusive process of knowledge transfer & exchange. I continue to suggest any other term falls short in defining the multiple influences and multi-production of knowledge that is captured by the term KMb.
    KTE (and similar terms) suggests a two-way or linear bestowing or sharing of knowledge within separate fields of application which may not accurately reflect the interdisciplinary methodologies, techniques and personal experiences at many levels and directions to mobilize knowledge within a broader framework to ultimately help inform policy-makers.
    I agree with Alex Bielak that there is a need to “unify this dynamic field”, but why “go beyond the terminology” to find yet again something that is already accurately practiced and described in KMb. I applaud Alex and colleagues working across the globe who are interested in organizing a low key consultation on moving the field forward. However, I believe using the term K* (K-star) to do this only muddies the knowledge waters further instead of cleaning them up.
    Why come up with a new term when one already exists to accurately describe and include the variety of similar terms being used? Sincere apologies Alex – but K* sounds more like a brand name of running shoes than a process of knowledge. It also lacks definition. K* does not describe what is dynamically happening with the knowledge or the process/flows of knowledge; whereas knowledge mobilization is a term that describes transfer, exchange, translation, utilization – all the processes of action (unless you’re perhaps using K* as running shoes for the action of running).
    With all due respect to our friends at KTExchange and Alex Bielak, the invitation is given to join in the conversation and see that perhaps part of the Canadian “KT secret” is actually using the more inclusive and broader term of Knowledge Mobilization.
    Gary Myers

  3. I follow the work of David Phipps and his colleagues quite attentively – not so much because I am interested in the research methods or theories (I am not a researcher)- because I am interested in how the latest research on knowledge mobilization can be used for creating greater value for the portfolio of clients my company serves.
    I really like this recent quote:
    “Knowledge is like fine wine, begins The Knowledge Translation Toolkit, edited by Gavin Bennett and Nasreen Jessani ( “The researcher brews it, the scientific paper bottles it, the peer review tastes it, the journal sticks a label on it, and archive systems store it carefully in a cellar.”
    That is all splendid, but there is just one small problem, the book points out: Wine is only useful when somebody drinks it, and wine in a bottle does not quench thirst. So, what is the solution? KT, or knowledge translation, which ‘opens the bottle, pours the wine into a glass, and serves it.”
    The investment in research with the expectation of public benefit is no different than investing in a stock expecting a dividend or rise in stock value. University research may have positive externalities other than value creation, however if it does not meet a baseline of new value, it is difficult to justify continued investments.
    Before jumping up and down and saying something like – “what about the arts, the humanities….”, remember that the new creative multi fields are the future of creative economy that is eclipsing the knowledge economy in the same way that it eclipsed the industrial economy.
    Knowledge mobilization helps make what we know ready for action or service. All action and service responds to market demands – a diversity of markets. This summer has seen an important shift in “Knowledge Mobilization Works”. For the first time in our 5 year history, a “small” consulting and training company has received a significant investment in what is described as conceptual economy venture capital.
    International investors saw that our model of exploiting publicly funded research findings into customized solutions for a broad range of public sector and private sector clients is model worth pursuing aggressively. Creating new value from spent costs is an important mechanism of creating the conditions for future wealth.
    These investors do not care what the method is called – really, they do not care. Most of my clients do not care either. They do care that their processes are more efficient, that their patients are healthier, that their kids learn more, that their programs help the people they serve. They care deeply about these things.
    Knowledge mobilization is a process of deriving more benefit from what we know – benefit determined in a diverse range of markets. The United States is going through another revolution. As an investor in the USA, I see opportunities for the US citizens and its intellectual, economic, and political leaders to move beyond the myth of individuals and revisit its history of collective behaviour and world class inventiveness.
    I think the wine has had a chance to breathe – cheers!
    Peter Levesque

  4. As I said, terminology is important to some… Peter gets it when, in essence, he says we need to get on with it, knowing that “it” is needed and important and not worrying too much what we call it. One of my points is that too often the function is undervalued, or balkanized in organizations if it is undertaken at all. That needs to change, and for that to happen we need to come together as a community with more of a common understanding.

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