So You Want to Build a KMb Unit? / Sinsi, vous voulez bâtir une unité de MdC?

The most common question RIR brokers are asked is, “How can my university join RIR?”  More on that in about four weeks.  The question I frequently am asked is, “How can I build a university based KMb unit?”

Comment mon université peut-elle intégrer le réseau ? », c’est la question la plus fréquente que reçoivent les courtiers du Réseau Impact Recherche – ResearchImpact. Plus sur ce sujet dans 4 semaines… La question que je me fais souvent poser est « Comment puis-je monter une unité de mobilisation des connaissances au sein de mon université? »

Great question.

On February 22, 2011 I shared my KMb toys in a blog that pointed to a paper recently published on how we built and, more importantly, how we operate York’s KMb Unit. I recently revisited that paper and recalled that it ended with four recommendations for getting started on developing an institutional capacity for knowledge mobilization services.

As first printed by Scholarly & Research Communications and posted in York’s institutional repository, these recommendations are:

  1. Find champions: It is important to find a high-level champion (such as a VP Research in a university setting) who will not only provide resources for your KMb Unit but will also help to clear policy barriers and institutional inertia. Identify researchers who are already practising engaged scholarship and seek input from them and their research partners. It is important to ground the work of your KMb Unit in the experiences of researchers and decision-makers. It is important to develop a shared (i.e., community-university) governance or advisory structure comprising internal and external champions.
  1. Collect data: Count everything (see Table 2) and track initiatives longitudinally. We have found that projects we provided with seed funding and brokering service are bearing fruit four years later. The impact of research on non-academic decision-making happens over a number of years. Record data now so you have something to evaluate and some stories to tell in the years to come.
  1. If possible, find grants for seed funding: You will never convince anyone to invest in your KMb Unit if you cannot demonstrate the return on that investment. We built our KMb Unit using external grants before the first hard money salary position was created four and a half years after we began operations.
  1. Hire the right knowledge broker: The broker is at the heart of the KMb Unit and will be responsible for its success or failure. These positions are emerging in a variety of organizations where brokers have a mix of academic/research experience and community experience. Find someone who has stood in both sectors to run the services that will bridge the two.

These four recommendations are the fundamentals of starting your KMb Unit. Implement these four and with a lot of hard work (remember, it takes a lot of time to be an overnight success) and some degree of luck, you too can build and operate your own KMb Unit. And then you’ll be ready to join the ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR) network of knowledge mobilization universities… but as I said, stay tuned for more on that.

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.

To view the original blog post and to sign up for a free membership to the Higher Education Network, click here.

A Thai Express, a Roots and an Innovation Panel / Un Thai Express, un Roots et un panel sur l’innovation

By David Phipps,  RIR-York

Imagine eating in a food court and listening to research that could have an impact on your life? Is this turning research into action? Maybe not but it would contribute to public awareness of the impact of research on society.

Imaginez-vous, attablé dans une aire de restauration, écoutant des recherches qui pourraient avoir un impact sur votre vie. Est-ce vraiment mettre la recherche en action? Peut-être pas, mais cela pourrait contribuer à sensibiliser le public à l’impact que peut avoir la recherche sur la société.

The actual quote was “Every shopping mall needs a Thai Express, a Roots and an Innovation Panel.” We heard this at the Symposium of the Ontario Research Chairs in Public Policy that York University organized on behalf of the Council of Ontario Universities.  The eight Ontario Research Chairs were joined by panelists from academia, the media as well as speakers from the public, private, community and health care sectors.  The audience (over 100) was mainly provincial policy makers, researchers and students. Knowledge mobilization underpinned the theme of “turning research into action”, the action being Ontario research informing Ontario public policy.

The second day (March 6) opened with the panel “Job Creation: What’s Research Got To Do With It?” which featured Suresh Narine, the Ontario Research Chair in Green Chemistry and Engineering at Trent University.  In his opening remarks, panel moderator Paul Wells (Maclean’s Magazine) said, “Every shopping mall needs a Thai Express, a Roots and an Innovation Panel.” The COU Symposium was in York’s Osgoode Professional Development Centre located on the 26th floor of the north tower of the downtown Toronto Eaton Centre shopping mall.  While the public are the ultimate beneficiaries of public policies informed by the research of the Ontario Research Chairs the COU Symposium was open to the public but the public did not attend.

Why is that? Knowledge brokers are ultimately concerned about maximizing the impact of research on society yet we broker almost exclusively between institutions. In 2009 we published a whimsical paper that presented lessons learned from knowledge mobilization with inspiration from Machiavelli and Dr. Seuss. Lesson #1 was: Concludero’ solo che al principe, e necessario avere il popolo amico – I will conclude then that it is necessary for the prince to have the people as friends. The lesson here is “no silo research. Research partnerships must be broad and most importantly, engage the people impacted by the outcome.” York embodies this by hosting Mobilizing Minds, a five year knowledge mobilization project working with a number of universities and community partners seeking pathways to young adult mental health. Young adults are part of every stage of the program and have a voice on each committee including the leadership committee.  Our strong presence in social media (@researchimpact, this blog, our You Tube channel) also connects our research to a very broad public.

Engaging the people affected by the outcome is great but why don’t we take research to the broader public beyond our social media? Why don’t we place an innovation panel in a shopping mall?

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research program Café Scientifique funds Canadian health researchers taking their research to public spaces like coffee shops or bars so this is happening on an individual researcher basis. On February 15, UBC hosted presentations by 13 Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), some of the leading researchers globally in their fields. Each CERC spoke for 5 minutes and it was open to the public but it wasn’t in a mall.

What if we learn from Machiavelli and combine the public access of Café Scientifique with the open access of the CERC presentations and hold a special presentation of the eight Ontario Research Chairs in a shopping mall to complement their engagement with policy makers? Imagine sitting in the food court of your local mall eating at Thai Express and listening to leading research that had relevance to your life? I would pair each Ontario Research Chair with a journalist who would turn the “wow” of research into “so what” for the public.  Five minutes where you get not only research steak but research sizzle as well (thank you Jeremy Burman).   This would help meet the goals advocated by Gary Myers (@KMbeing) who takes a more holistic view of knowledge mobilization encouraging everyone to share their own knowledge for social benefit.

It might not turn research into action (we’ll leave that to the policy makers) but it would turn research into attention.

“Sizzle vs. Steak” and the Misunderstanding of Memes

By Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, Department of Psychology, York University

We are pleased to present this guest blog post from Jeremy Burman, who is contract faculty at York University, where he is also working to complete his doctorate in psychology.  We invited him to write this guest column after his new article—“The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976-1999” —was featured as a nominee for the Ig Nobel Prize.  (This article, which you can get here for free, is now its journal’s top download.)  Having also worked as a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in R&D at several start-ups during the Tech Bubble, Burman’s perspective balances the competing interests navigated by those in the KMb field. His post below touches on aspects of crowdsourcing, social media, and the construction of meaning, which are all involved in the public understanding of the knowledge we mobilize.

If ideas spread like viruses (as “memes”), then ignorance is a disease. It can either be cured, or prevented. And that’s all there is to it.

The ignorant are encouraged to take their medicine for their own good. They are to be pitied, treated, and—if possible—cured.  If they resist, the cure is sometimes forced upon them.

Recall: The God Delusion.  (If you haven’t read the book, you can get a sense of it by watching the documentary.)

But if ideas aren’t really like viruses, and there’s no such thing as “memes,” then we ought to think differently about how we respond to ignorance.  That’s what my recent article is really about.

Academics aren’t interested in sizzle

If we believe that messages are “infectious,” then we are led to search for the most “virulent” version of our message that we can find.  We will believe that the most infectious idea is the most easily mobilized.

But this kind of thinking is misleading.  It encourages us to focus on the wrong thing: instead of communicating an idea’s meaning, we start trying to sell its features.  We start to focus on “sizzle,” rather than “steak.”

That’s not what academics do.  It’s not how we are trained to think and act.  And it’s not what we care about.

In my teaching, I don’t sell ideas.  Instead, I encourage my students to make ideas meaningful.  Since I teach developmental psychology, I challenge them to think of ways to use our course materials to improve the lives of children everywhere.  Most recently, I have taken this challenge to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia: Bane or boon?

If ideas are like viruses, then there is no point in trying to fix Wikipedia. Either it is infected, and dangerous, or it soon will be.  Actually, I think that’s why students are told not to use it: since they haven’t yet been inoculated with a proper education, they might get infected and hurt.


The distrust of Wikipedia is little more than a reflection of the misunderstanding that I’ve tried to address in my article.  The simple truth is that Wikipedia works better than any other encyclopedia ever created.  It’s a great first stop when you’re trying to figure out how to approach a topic.  And it succeeds, in the end, because it allows lots of people to work collectively to fix the errors they can see.  Whenever someone has tried to bring in the experts, as a cure to ignorance, the result has been abject failure.

Instead of trying to fix Wikipedia myself, as I once did, I now guide my students through the creation of their own Wiki projects in a protected site hosted on a private server at York University.  As a result, they learn the difference between “sizzle” (memes) and “steak” (meanings).  They become critical consumers of what Wikipedia has to offer.  And they learn the skills they need to fix it.

Teaching Wikipedia, mobilizing knowledge

By the end of this year alone, I will have taught 350 students to find mistakes at Wikipedia and fix them.  But I am not spreading an infection: my students aren’t replicating the “idea viruses” to which I expose them in class.  Instead, they are working to help children by communicating the results published in peer reviewed journals.  And they are using those results to correct our popular misbeliefs.

My students are mobilizing knowledge at a massive scale.  They are working with content, not with cures; with steak, not sizzle.  Eventually, we will all benefit from their efforts.

The very notion that one might attempt such a thing is unthinkable if we believe that ideas are infectious.  Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case.  It’s based on a misunderstanding.

There’s no such thing as “memes.”  Thus: if we instead recognize that the community of Wikipedians will fix what mistakes they can see, then our challenge shifts from mobilizing knowledge in order to prevent or cause infections toward mobilizing knowledge in order to help others look more carefully or see more clearly.

Academics, and Wikipedians, need your help

What I’m suggesting is something academics are trained to do: make it possible to correct mistakes, misbeliefs, and misunderstandings.  For the most part, it’s also something we’re good at.  And the community of knowledge mobilizers is perfectly positioned to help.

My article used history as a way to show how the idea of “idea viruses” became something we could believe in; how it became possible for ideas to be thought of as being “infectious.”  (How the “meme” could come to be treated as a scientific object.)  The larger issue that I intended to highlight, though, is how the resulting understanding ought to affect how we think about communicating scientific ideas; how we share meaning.

Crowd-sourced social media, like Wikipedia, is where the knowledge produced by academics needs to end up.  That’s where the largest audience is.  But that’s also where the popular misunderstandings are being made, as amateur knowledge mobilizers misunderstand the academic message and reconstruct it in a way that’s more consistent with their beliefs.

That, ultimately, is the challenge for professional knowledge mobilizers.  For academics, the goal is not to sell; the goal is to share.  We want everyone to have steak.  But you’re the experts: Can you help us deliver? (Can you increase the impact of our work?)  How?

* * *

 Burman is a writer and a teacher, but uses his efforts in each to inform the other.  If you want to read the essay that’s behind all of this, you can get it here for free.  This is an Open Access article; if you’d like to share the link, you are welcome to do so.  You can also visit his website here.

Once a mobilizer… / Lorsqu’on devient agent de mobilisation…

By Jason Guriel (Centre for Addictions and Mental Health)

This guest blog post can hardly be called a guest post as Jason is one of our own.  You first heard from Jason in Mobilize This! on August 21, 2008. Having spent a number of summers working for RIR-York drafting clear language research summaries we are absolutely delighted he has started a career in KMb working with long time RIR-York colleague Heather Bullock. Welcome home Jason. Nice to have you around.

On peut difficilement dire que ce billet a été rédigé par un blogueur invité puisque Jason est en fait l’un des nôtres. Vous avez entendu parler de Jason pour la première fois sur Mobilize This!, le 21 août 2008. Ayant passé plusieurs étés à travailler à la rédaction de résumé de recherche en langage clair pour le compte de RIR-York, nous sommes ravis qu’il ait entrepris une carrière en MdC aux côtés d’une collègue de longue date du RIR-York, Heather Bullock. Bienvenue chez toi Jason. C’est toujours un plaisir de te revoir.

ResearchImpact, Canada’s knowledge mobilization network, works to support the active, two-way exchange of information and expertise between knowledge creators and knowledge users. And for many years as a graduate student, I worked to support ResearchImpact! As part of the Knowledge Mobilization Unit at York University, I learned how to translate research findings into clear language aimed at a general audience. I wrote content and helped develop concise summaries of the latest studies. In writing these “Research Snapshots” – and in helping to facilitate that “two-way exchange” – I became the beneficiary of a great deal of new knowledge: important research evidence about climate change, homelessness, the social determinants of health, and other areas.

But ResearchImpact didn’t just connect me with the world of research; it connected me with the Evidence Exchange Network (EENet). Located at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, EENet promotes the use of research evidence in decision-making by providing an infrastructure that links research with mental health and addictions stakeholders across Ontario. I had the pleasure of being part of a group that connected up with EENet last summer to offer some consultation on our Research Snapshot format, which the network had started to use. The experience was great; when I finished my doctoral dissertation and a full-time communications position came up at EENet this past fall, I jumped at the chance to join the team.

Although I used to call what I do “knowledge mobilization” – I now use the term “knowledge translation and exchange”! – I’m still working to support two-way exchanges. And I’m looking forward to helping EENet fulfill its mission to ensure that the Ontario mental health and addictions system is evidence-informed. I’m looking forward to building and strengthening new connections….