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.