Walking amongst Canada’s knowledge mobilizers: lessons and comparisons from a visit to York University Toronto

The following blog story was first published on the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships (CRFR) on January 12, 2012. It is reposted here with permission.
Sarah Morton Co-Director (Knowledge Exchange) reflects on a recent visit to Canada
I was fortunate enough for the ESRC to fund me for a visit to York University, Toronto Canada as part of my PhD studentship looking at how we assess the impact of research. The visit also chimed with my role as Co-Director (Knowledge Exchange) at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships. This blog reflects on some of by observations about the ways we do KE or KMb on opposite sides of the pond.
David Phipps, Director, Research Services & Knowledge Exchange at York was a wonderful host, who set up many meetings and exchanges with like-minded individuals and made me feel very welcome.
So the language is immediately different. No-one in my networks in the UK uses the term Knowledge Mobilization – and the ‘z’ makes it appear very North American to us. I also enjoyed the term ‘transition into lunch’ used at a conference! But overall there was more to unite than divide the respective communities in Scotland (UK) and Toronto. CRFR’s model of doing KE was still an exemplar, and there was lots of interest in my work on increasing and assessing research impact.
Day one I gave a presentation at the Ontario KMb community of practice – a wonderful way to make connections and set up further meetings. What interested me about the CoP was that it was a real mix of university-based and public/community based KEpractitioners (in health, housing, schools), who all talked the same language around knowledge use. The CoP is large – over 100 members, so 40 can turn up to a meeting at any time, and a fairly high level, knowledgeable discussion of KE issues is possible in that forum. I struggle to think of an equivalent here, although we hope to set up a new KE network from CRFR in the Spring.
David Phipps’ Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York is part of theKE and Commercialisation department, but with a specific decision to make the KMb in social sciences distinctive, especially in terms of engagement with the local community. There are two main members of staff in the unit: Michael Johnny, and Krista Jensen, assisted by project staff, and graduate students at different times.What I found distinctive about their approach compared to my experience in the UK was:

  • A university-wide approach to Knowledge Mobilization
  • Having a help desk at events where community members can ask for assistance from the university – I can’t imagine some universities here offering such a service!
  • Running plain language training and then producing briefings of peer-reviewed research across the university
  • KM in the AM – breakfast community meetings
  • Annual KMb Expo – where community groups engage with the unit
  • Extensive use of social media: blog and twitter @researchimpact (although some groups in the UK are catching up with this and it has inspired me to do more @crfrtweets)

David and I met with some civil servants in the Ontario Provincial Government from across departments to have a fairly informal chat about KMb and government. They have an emerging KMbnetwork within government with some dedicated resources, not unlike the KE unit within the Scottish Government. Many of the issues of trying to work across departments, timing and accessibility of research, and how to show the importance of research in creating impact resonated with concerns in Scotland and the UK.
Other meetings with students in Ben Levin’s department in OISE, with the Children’s Welfare Organisations and with other KEprofessionals in local authority, water board (!) and women’s health added to a very rich and rewarding visit. I even had dinner with my colleague from Edinburgh Sandra Nutley – a rare opportunity to catch up outwith work!
David and I have continued our collaboration, with David giving a keynote presentation at our 10th anniversary National Conference ‘Influencing Society: the impact of social research’; us presenting some joint work on the role of knowledge brokers at the London Conference ‘Bridging the Gap between research, policy and practice’ in December 2011, and working on a joint paper on the same topic. I hope to return to Toronto in 2012, to present my work on assessing research impact and continue this fruitful collaboration.
Sarah Morton