Knowledge Mobilization as a Tool of Institutional Governance: Exploring Academics’ Perceptions of “Going Public”

Cain, K., Shore, K., Weston, C., & Sanders, C. B. (2018). Knowledge mobilization as a tool of institutional governance: Exploring academics’ perceptions of “going public”. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 48(2), 39-54.


In Canada there are growing discussions concerning the role of publicly funded universities and the impact of academic research. The integration of neoliberal practices and market rationalities place pressure on universities to “go public” in order to demonstrate relevance and accountability. Researchers are encouraged or even required to engage the public through knowledge mobilization activities. Our study provides an empirical analysis of knowledge mobilization in order to understand its perceived impact on public criminology, and more broadly the production and dissemination of criminological research. We argue that the institutional shift toward knowledge mobilization is perceived as a tool of institutional governance to demonstrate organizational accountability that shapes the production and dissemination of criminological knowledge.

This paper is predicated on you knowing what neoliberal means. You can’t appreciate this paper without understanding the neoliberal influences that have allegedly been driving higher education since the 1980s. Whether you agree with this or think neoliberalism is a good or a bad thing isn’t the point, but you do need to understand what it means as it is the back drop to the article.

This paper takes a critical look at knowledge mobilization in Canadian higher education. This is an important perspective to bring to our thinking. As knowledge mobilization/research impact practitioners we often do not take a critical look at our own practices even as (or because) we are immersed in the allegedly neoliberal institutional agenda.

But here’s the thing about this paper: I can’t figure out if the critique of knowledge mobilization is positive or negative or just resigned to describing what is without taking a position on it.

The interviews with stakeholders demonstrate almost wholly negative responses but the negativity is often directed at the tokenistic nature of institutional and funder approaches to knowledge mobilization rather than opinions about knowledge mobilization per se.

I believe the article makes the case for more knowledge mobilization. Referring to a previous conservative government that appeared to not value the input of academic evidence or expertise, the article states, “In particular, [these quotes] demonstrate the perception that the political context limited the degree to which social scientists were able to effectively disseminate their research publicly.” This makes the case that we need more knowledge mobilization to support more academic evidence/expertise to become engaged in public policy debates.

One disconnect I read is between the assertion of a neoliberal agenda and the disconnect between tenure & promotion (T&P) in higher education. On the one hand interview subjects frequently speak about the lack of recognition for knowledge mobilization in T&P. On the other hand, traditional scholarship remains a primary element of T&P. How much of a neoliberal agenda is being implemented in higher education if the primary reward structures fail to reward knowledge mobilization which is proposed in this paper to be a function of institutional governance responding to neoliberalism? Doesn’t traditional scholarship still rule the academy?

There is a timing issue here because the paper illustrates that institutions are ignoring the knowledge mobilization efforts of respondents. The article refers to a government in power in 2013 and a change in government in 2016 and was published in 2018. More recently Amanda Cooper has shown a growth in supports for knowledge mobilization and public communications but these supports remain under used by education faculty. So are institutions responding more recently?

What the article does point out is the disconnect between funders requiring knowledge mobilization strategies in grant applications, but these strategies are presented as something that isn’t valued at review and isn’t reported upon. This has also changed with SSHRC’s new achievement reports and a new partner report for non-academic partners in SSHRC partnership grant programs both of which collect reports on knowledge mobilization activities and research impacts.

So, an interestingly critical reflection on institutional and funder knowledge mobilization but a reflection that can be construed to be supportive of knowledge mobilization which more recent system responses have begun to address.

Questions for brokers:

  1. Neoliberal: a driver of knowledge mobilization; a consequence of knowledge mobilization; or much ado about nothing?
  2. Knowledge mobilization can be included in service, in other professional contributions and/or in communications/public outreach activities in T&P files. The problem isn’t the T&P policies but the implementation of these policies by peer T&P committees. So what needs to change? The policies or the collegium?
  3. Knowledge mobilization is likely here to stay. Are institutions doing enough to support researchers in this (not so) new landscape? What more can be done?

Research Impact Canada is producing this journal club series to make evidence on Knowledge Mobilization 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.