Director of the Research Unit for Research Utilisation (Ruru) (RURU), University of St Andrews, Uk

As a long-time advocate of the benefits of using research to inform the development and implementation of public policy and service delivery practices, I am heartened by the growing number of knowledge mobilisation initiatives (operating in many sectors and countries) dedicated to facilitating and enhancing research use. However, I am struck by the irony that many of these initiatives struggle to demonstrate that their own knowledge mobilisation practices are themselves research-informed and in line with the best available research on how to enhance research use. I do not for a moment think that this is due to knowledge mobilisers wilfully disregarding research findings when it comes to their own practices, so what is going on and what questions might this raise for KNAER-RECRAE?

Huw Davies and Alison Powell and I have sought to shed some light on this conundrum in a recent project which considered how key research agencies (funders, producers and intermediaries) working in the fields of health, social care and education designed and implemented their knowledge mobilisation strategies. We reviewed the knowledge mobilisation literature to distil the latest thinking and empirical evidence on best practice. We then studied the agencies’ strategies and practices by reviewing the websites of over 200 agencies, obtaining online survey responses from over 100 agencies and conducting in-depth interviews with 51 agencies.

The key tenets that emerged from the literature review included the importance of using relational approaches that bring researchers and research users together; acknowledging the importance of context; being aware of the needs of research users; drawing on a range of types of knowledge, not just research-based knowledge; and testing and evaluating interventions and feeding that knowledge back into future practice.

We found from the survey that relatively few agencies were fully embodying these insights in their own approaches to knowledge mobilisation. There was a marked focus on producing knowledge products and on traditional ways of disseminating (‘pushing’) these products to policy makers and practitioners. Few agencies were conducting robust evaluations of their own knowledge mobilisation activities. Indeed, overall, the field of knowledge mobilisation seemed somewhat detached from its own knowledge base with activities being developed and implemented without reference to existing theory or empirical evidence, and without robust evaluations that could contribute to developing the knowledge base in this area.

The survey offered some insights into the reasons for this disconnection between the knowledge mobilisation literature and knowledge mobilisation practice. Part of the explanation resides in agencies’ frustration with the literature due to its complex concepts, growing jargon, and still limited empirical evidence on the effectiveness of different knowledge mobilisation strategies and activities. 

This is not the whole story, however, because the majority of survey respondents expressed agreement with statements derived from the key tenets emerging from the literature. Their views about the features of effective knowledge mobilisation were in essence in line with the literature but they nevertheless struggled to reflect these understandings in their agency’s knowledge mobilisation practices. They expressed some frustration that the knowledge mobilisation literature did not offer much guidance on how to translate conceptual principles and models into practical action. 

This translation process and the difficulties of moving beyond a traditional ‘push’ approach to knowledge mobilisation is bound up with the contextual and capacity factors that played a significant role in shaping the knowledge mobilisation practices of our agencies. These included short term funding regimes for mobilisation activities, and the performance measurement and accountability frameworks for researchers and agencies. The limited capacity of potential research-user organisations to engage in knowledge mobilisation activities also hindered the development of ongoing relationships and interactions.

Do not despair: our study’s picture of the connection between knowledge mobilisation research and practice is not wholly gloomy. There are promising developments and it is in these that we see reasons for optimism and avenues for further development. 

While the survey shows that few agencies fully embody the key tenets from the literature, many are seeking to move in this direction and some agencies have developed strategies and activities from which other agencies could learn. Our survey indicated that very few agencies were already learning from each other and we would encourage the development of stronger cross-agency fora to enable this. Such fora would facilitate learning from those agencies that have implemented successful relational approaches, are experimenting with innovative approaches and technologies, and are evaluating their knowledge mobilisation activities in ways that are adding to the existing knowledge base. 

With regard to knowledge mobilisation research, there are already researchers who are seeking to develop better connections between their research and knowledge mobilisation practices through collaborative projects, including action research and the co-production of knowledge mobilisation research and practice. This should be encouraged as it promises a situation where research and practice are both informed by and inform each other. 

Members of KNAER-RECRAE have probably already identified points for self-reflection. These are likely to include reflecting on the knowledge base that underpins the network’s activities, whether the network is adding to and helping to refine that knowledge base, and how it is seeking to address the contextual and capacity factors that are likely to be limiting what it can do and achieve. I also hope that members of the network will see merit in further developing and contributing to fora that enable better cross-fertilisation of ideas and learning across knowledge mobilisation agencies, although such fora already seem more developed in Canada than in many other countries.

Note: The findings referred to in this commentary are further explored in the final project report and in a paper published in Evidence & Policy.