How did knowledge mobilization become a “thing” in Canada?

David was recently asked by a colleague about the history and driving forces behind growth of knowledge mobilization in Canada’s research landscape. Did you know the journey is as old as Canada itself?


A few weeks ago, a colleague e mailed me asking, “Do you know approximately when the funding agencies started to mandate KM as one of the key components for their funding programs? Is federal policy the driving force for this?”

Did you know there is a long history of work that has led us to where we are today supporting the various connections between research and its ultimate socioeconomic impacts?

Jonathan Lomas wrote that one of the earliest reported examples of knowledge mobilization was in the German dye industry in the 1880s. Apparently the dominance of Germans in the dye industry was in part a function of networks of academic and industry collaborators. But the story of research for impact is older than that, older than the founding of Canada.

The US Land Grant Act of 1862 granted federal lands for use by States to create colleges of agriculture to ensure that research at the land grant universities was made available to benefit local farmers and agricultural industries. The US government was using education policy for economic benefit. This continued 118 years later with the Bayh–Dole Act of 1980 that created the expectation for universities to commercialize results of research receiving federal funding. Sure, universities had patented and collaborated with industry before 1980 but after 1980 is was required.

In Canada the move to knowledge mobilization in research was mostly driven by research funders. The CIHR Act (2000) includes knowledge translation as a legislated mandate for CIHR. SSHRC included KMb as a mandatory element in revisions to their program architecture (around 2009). NSERC doesn’t have this as a mandatory element but includes commercialization in funding programs where appropriate and has a suite of Alliance programs that support collaborations between researchers and (primarily) industry partners. We set up KMb York in 2006 (same year as MUN set up the Harris Centre, 6 months before us!) but it wasn’t until 2009 that we got much love from our researchers. Peter Levesque, long time friend of Research Impact Canada, recently posted that he found his notes from the first meeting at SSHRC (March 11, 1999) for planning the Community University Research Alliance program that was designed to support the co-creation of research with community organizations.

Another early entrant was the Canadian Health Research Foundation (now Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement) that was founded by federal government in 1996 with a mandate “to support evidence-informed decision-making, management and delivery of health services through funding research, capacity building and knowledge transfer.”

But in my opinion, the push from the federal funding agencies all started with the Networks of Centres of Excellence. The NCE program was founded in 1989 as a collaboration of the three federal funding agencies to support “research, commercialization and knowledge translation” that were designed to invest in research to address a significant socioeconomic issue and create benefits to Canadians. This mandate was refined over the years into KTEE (knowledge and technology exchange and exploitation), one of five adjudication elements for all NCE competitions.

The effort to promote research impact has been maintained in the current NFRF competitions which are designed to use research to address a well-defined challenge for Canadians. But interestingly there is no KT/KMb or impact section to NFRF applications. The impact must be built into the research proposal. I think this shows a maturation of impact as it can’t be easily separated from the research. Both need to be written and conducted together.

And don’t forget the Health Charities that have always funded research with the goal of funding research to make an impact on their diseases of interest. Many of these charities are decades old. Just by way of example, the Heart & Stroke Foundation has been operating for more than 60 years and the predecessor of Diabetes Canada was founded in 1953.

While the words and agencies may be relatively new, knowledge translation, knowledge mobilization and Research Impact Canada have historical roots not only with the federal funding programs but to the efforts driven by health charities, their donors and stakeholders.


Thank you for this ongoing journey!