The Rise of the Knowledge Broker

Meyer, M. (2010). The rise of the knowledge broker. Science Communication, 32(1), 118 -127.
Knowledge brokers are people or organizations that move knowledge around and create connections between researchers and their various audiences. This commentary reviews some of the literature on knowledge brokering and lays out some thoughts on how to analyze and theorize this practice. Discussing the invisibility and interstitiality of knowledge brokers, the author argues that social scientists need to analyze more thoroughly their practices, the brokering devices they use, and the benefits and drawbacks of their double peripherality. The author also argues that knowledge brokers do not only move knowledge, but they also produce a new kind of knowledge: brokered knowledge.
This paper is a self-described commentary from two years ago. The author makes a number of points about the role of knowledge brokers. He defines knowledge brokers as “people whose job it is to move knowledge around and create connections between researchers and their various audiences”. Here he points out two potential roles for knowledge brokers: working with knowledge and creating relationships, although the majority of his paper deals with knowledge and not with relationship. He also correctly identifies knowledge brokers as organizations as well as people identifying the role that organizations can play as knowledge brokers.
The author asks the question, “Can knowledge brokering take place anywhere and everywhere”? He identifies science shops, technology transfer and science journalism as spaces that “have developed at the intersection of worlds that have become increasingly intertwined and because the traffic of knowledge between these worlds has become increasingly professionalized, formalized, and institutionalized.” Two years later we have many more examples of such spaces occuring within research units and research organizations and knowledge brokering organizations are emerging as organizations in their own right.
The author then proceeds to theorize knowledge brokering but he bases his theory solely on the knowledge rather than the relationships and collaborations he referred to above that can create and co-create new knowledge.  He theorizes that the act of knowledge brokering means more than “simply moving knowledge – it also means transforming knowledge”. He hypothesizes a new form of knowledge called brokered knowledge. “Brokered knowledge is knowledge made more robust, more accountable, more usable; knowledge that ‘serves locally’ at a given time; knowledge that has been de- and reassembled”. Perhaps we translate or summarize knowledge but as knowledge brokers I think our real value lies in creating relationships through which knowledge is newly co-created. Co-created knowledge certainly is more robust, accountable and useable than knowledge created by academic or community-based researchers working on their own. I do not believe any amount of patenting, summarizing or translating knowledge makes knowledge more robust. Knowledge only becomes robust, accountable and useable when it is connected to action.  I propose that is the primary role of knowledge brokers.
There is one final yet important point the author raises, specifically the invisibility of knowledge brokering. “It is said to be an activity that is usually not acknowledged nor recognized in institutions (Bielak et al., 2008), an activity that tends to be invisible and take place ‘back stage'”. This is a concept I have come to agree with as we track some of our brokered collaborations forward to outcomes and impacts. The knowledge co-created through a collaboration brokered by knowledge brokers might take years to work its way towards impact. The impact might never have been possible without the original brokered collaboration but the act of brokering years earlier is now invisible. Our work is invisible when measuring the impact of research on decision making. And this is ok. The spotlight must be on the research and the impact resulting from an evidence informed decision.
For the Bielak et al 2008 article, see Bielak, A. T., Campbell, A., Pope, S., Schaefer, K., & Shaxson, L. (2008). From science communication to knowledge brokering: The shift from “science push” to “policy pull.” In D. Cheng, M. Claessens, T. Gascoigne, J. Metcalfe, B. Schiele, & S. Shi (Eds.),Communicating science in social contexts: New models, new practices (pp. 201-226). Amsterdam: Springer.
Key Points for discussion: There are three items for further discussion and reflection:

  1. We usually think of knowledge brokers as people but organizations are increasingly being tooled around brokering roles.  Think of some organizations that have been crated to make connections between research and end user and use the comment feature below to indicate what they are and how they work. Many of these organizations exist as networks. Working in a network moves knowledge brokering beyond an individual or organization model and places it in a systems model. For more on systems level knowledge mobilization see a previous journal club entry titled, “Systems thinking, knowledge and action: towards better models and methods
  2. Are we all knowledge brokers? Louise Shaxon, in her book Knowledge Policy and Power in International Development, A Practical Guide argues that everyone involved in the research to action cycle is acting as a knowledge broker at some point. This is likely true but if we are all knowledge brokers and we do not name knowledge brokering as a discrete profession and a discrete activity then we lose an opportunity to fund it, train for it and support growing cadres of professional knowledge practitioners such as the K* initiative, the KTE CoP and the ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche network of knowledge mobilization universities. I believe there are knowledge brokers who are embedded within organizations but remain distinct from other actors in the broad research to action cycle.
  3. If our work is invisible how do we evaluate it and make the case for funding for our work?

RIR is producing this journal club series as a way to make the 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.