What is Knowledge Mobilisation and Why Does it Matter to Universities?

The following story was written by David Phipps of RIR – York University and first appeared on the Guardian Higher Education Network’s blog on March 9, 2012
In this series of four guest articles, David Phipps, director of research services and knowledge exchange at York University, Toronto, Canada, writes about knowledge mobilisation; an emerging institutional infrastructure designed to maximise the impact of academic research on public policy and professional practice. David spent part of December in Edinburgh, Brighton and London exploring knowledge exchange and knowledge brokering in the UK.
In this first installment in the series, he introduces knowledge mobilisation.

Social sciences and humanities matter because they help us understand and address "wicked problems" such as poverty, housing or climate change.

The social sciences and humanities (SSH) matter. They matter because they help us understand and address “wicked problems” such as poverty, housing, immigration, climate change, security, Aboriginal issues and social determinants of health – to name a few. We can address wicked problems, but we have a tough time eradicating them. In 2008, John Camillus wrote in the Harvard Business Review that wicked problems: “occur in a social context; the greater the disagreement among stakeholders, the more wicked the problem. It’s the social complexity of wicked problems as much as their technical difficulties that make them tough to manage.” Wicked problems are social problems. Wicked problems are problems of the social sciences.
Universities are the main producers of new SSH research knowledge and graduate level talent. University knowledge and talent have the potential to contribute to new approaches to wicked problems, but they cannot benefit society if SSH scholars limit themselves to traditional academic paradigms of scholarly communication and dissemination. Knowledge mobilisation is the process of connecting academic SSH research to non-academic decision-makers so that this research informs decisions about public policy and professional practice. Knowledge mobilisation (the process) can enable social innovation (the outcome).
Since 2006, York University, Canada, has employed a knowledge-mobilisation unit to broker relationships between university research and expertise (both faculty and graduate students) and non-academic partners. York University described its work in 2009 and recently published details about its knowledge mobilisation services and lessons learned. York’s knowledge mobilisation unit currently houses three full-time knowledge brokers, one of whom works in the community at York’s primary community partner, the United Way of York Region. York’s knowledge mobilistion unit is part of the university administration working under the auspices of the vice-president of research and innovation.
The unit serves the needs of all York University faculty, students and their non-academic research partners and has brokered collaborations in disciplines as varied as mental health, education, geography, immigration, green economy, arthritis, housing, communications, literacy and social determinants of health. The unit is a university-wide research infrastructure analogous to the ubiquitous technology transfer and commercialisation office.
Sandra Nutley and her colleagues from the University of Edinburgh Research Unit on Research Utilisation have published five ways that institutions can seek to enhance extra academic impacts of research.
These include: place value upon and provide incentives for generation of impact; support two-way interactions between researchers and users; provide injections of financial support, dedicated staff and infrastructure; develop the facilitating role(s) of knowledge intermediaries and communicate and increase the accessibility of research.
A note on terminology: many organisations use diverse terms to describe knowledge mobilisation. There are subtle distinctions between knowledge transfer (KT), knowledge translation (also KT), knowledge exchange (KE), knowledge transfer and exchange (KTE), knowledge translation and transfer (KTT), knowledge mobilisation (KM), and knowledge integration (KI); however, they are all terms to describe essentially the same process of connecting research to practice and policy. Recently, an effort to move away from the terminology recommends the term K* (“K-star”) as a solution to those entrenched in their own identities and resistant to other terms. We prefer to use knowledge mobilisation. We also prefer not to get distracted by the debate on terminology because we are busy enough just doing it.
The remaining three articles in the series will reflect on the past (origins of KMb), present (KMb services provided at York University) and future (where the field is going or needs to go).
David Phipps is director of research services and knowledge exchange at York University, Toronto, Canada. For more on knowledge mobilisation at York University, and from David, see the Research Impact blog and follow @researchimpact on Twitter.
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