Active Engagement of Canadian Research Institutions Will Foster the Future of Knowledge Mobilization and Research Impact

The following report was prepared for Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and was prepared by Stephen MacGregor, David Phipps, Cathy Malcolm Edwards, Jen Kyffin, Virginie Portes.

Aim of the Report

For over 20 years, there has been mounting interest in how the Canadian research enterprise can support research impact, referring to “the influence scholarly and creative inquiry has upon wider society, intended as well as unintended, immediate as well as protracted” (Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2017, p. 13)[1]. Efforts to progress research impact are known as knowledge mobilization (KMb). To date, much of the focus in KMb has been either on (a) the public policies driving increased emphasis on impact (e.g., Bandola-Fill, 2019; Boswell & Smith, 2017; Williams & Grant, 2018), or (b) moving research evidence from a project into its use by a downstream stakeholder and measuring that use (e.g., Edwards & Meagher, 2019; Morton, 2015; Budtz Pedersen et al., 2020). However, comparatively little is known about the KMb roles and functions of research institutions in support of research impact. This report outlines how research institutions will play a critical role in the future of KMb and research impact as the link between what governments and funders want and what researchers and their partners can deliver.

1. The Landscape for KMb and Impact: Where Have We Been?

In 2006, SSHRC launched a renewed program architecture requiring every grant application to have a KMb strategy (i.e., a plan outlining anticipated impacts with the target audiences along with the efforts that will be made to achieve them). Owing to this focus on KMb strategies, Canadian researchers are incentivized to focus on describing how to create impacts (mission driven), which is notably different than many international examples (e.g., UK), where researchers are incentivized to focus on what impacts have occurred (assessment driven). Seeing both framings as useful, the report invokes the concept of research impact literacy, defined as the ability to “identify appropriate impact goals and indicators, critically appraise and optimise impact pathways, and reflect on the skills needed to tailor approaches across contexts” (Bayley & Phipps, 2019a, p. 3). Impact literacy recognizes that impact is influenced by actions and events not only at the level of individual researchers, but also at the levels of research institutions and the systems in which they are embedded. As research institutions begin to develop their impact literacy, the need to underpin KMb practice with KMb research has become more acute, setting the stage for where we are now (Table 1).

Table 1

Summary of the Past, Present, and Future of KMb and Impact

Past Present Future
Major focus in both practice and scholarship on linear models of KMb, such technology transfer or commercialization offices Recognition of the need for relational and systems models of KMb, but limited institutional support   Exploring the parallel and contingent operation of different models of KMb as impact becomes a core component of the research enterprise
Awareness that university research should have an impact on society Proliferation of mission-driven and assessment-driven systems of impact Evidence-informed KMb through individual and institutional capacity building for impact literacy
KMb theory disconnected from practice Increasing connections between practitioners and scholars of KMb Internationalization of impact practice and scholarship

2. The Landscape for KMb and Impact: Where Are We Now?

2.1. Institutional Roles in KMb

At a general level, research institutions enact KMb roles aligned with the three generations of models for KMb:

  • Linear models in which research is produced and then made available for users in a mainly one-way relationship;
  • Relationship models (such as network and partnership models) that build on linear models but focus on enhancing relationships between and among researchers and practitioners to facilitate the development and mobilisation of research and practice connections;
  • Systems models that move away from linear processes and involve a more complex process involving interaction, co-creation and implementation of evidence throughout all levels of a system, plus identifying and addressing barriers to mobilising research and practice knowledge for evidence use.” (Campbell et al., 2017, p. 212)

Each “generation” reflects learning acquired over time and efforts to address limitations in earlier theories. Moreover, relationship and systems models for KMb are more inclusive of different forms of knowledge, or ways of knowing, as exemplified by developments in cross-cultural research such as with Indigenous communities. Recent scholarship is increasing focus on how to develop operational models, tools, and case examples of applying systems theory to KMb. An important line of inquiry for future research will be how different actors holding different KMb roles—aligned with linear, relationship, and systems models of KMb—within research institutions can work synergistically, overcoming constraints and building collective efficacy.

3. The Landscape for KMb and Impact: Where Are We Going?

3.1. Impact Will Be A Core Component of the Research Enterprise

The future of KMb and impact will see the integration of impact into descriptions of research programs alongside a blurring of the boundaries between assessment-driven and mission-driven systems of impact, where governments provide incentives for impacts that are driven by institutional missions. These developments will, in turn, drive success in institutional rankings. The Times Higher Education (THE) rolled out the Impact Rankings[2] in 2019, ranking universities on their impacts towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Institutions are beginning to align efforts as impact assessment becomes part of national (e.g., the REF) and international (e.g., THE) rankings.

As impact becomes a core component of the research enterprise, it will also be recognized in tenure and promotion (T&P). The local contexts of T&P review are critical to understanding, recognizing, and rewarding scholarship that reaches beyond academia (Lambert-Pennington 2016), yet Canadian T&P policies are inconsistent with regards to KMb efforts (Barreno et al., 2013). As academic institutions increasingly value KMb as means to compete in international impact rankings, T&P policies and their implementation at the departmental, faculty, and senate levels will need to evolve to reward these activities.

3.2. Individual and Institutional Capacity Building for Impact Literacy

As institutions are driven towards impact through their missions, assessment exercises, and rankings, they will need to build their own institutional impact literacy as well as the impact literacy of faculty, students, and staff. There are many workshops and one-off capacity building sessions frequently delivered at conferences, but currently, there are few courses that build impact literacy. As scholars and practitioners link across fields of investigation and practice, such as implementation science and integrated knowledge translation, courses will become accredited (e.g., as KTPC is accredited by the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies) and entire graduate programs will be created with both scholarly and practicum elements.

Hiring impact literate staff (academic and non-academic) will contribute to building institutional impact literacy. As institutions pursue higher impact rankings, they will need to build their capacity to support impact. For example, impact is becoming a core element of Strategic Research Plans[3] , which will in turn drive investments in staff and capacity building for impact literacy. Tools such as Institutional Healthcheck Workbook are likely to be useful in this endeavour (Bayley & Phipps, 2019b).

3.3. Internationalization of Impact Practice and Scholarship

            Researchers around the world are creating evidence on KMb and impact, but according to Powell et al. (2017), practitioners around the world are not using the evidence. To overcome this hurdle, there will be more practice–scholarship collaborations, such as the collaboration between practitioners in Research Impact Canada and the RIPPLE program of research at Queen’s University that has resulted in this and one other publication (MacGregor and Phipps, 2020). And these collaborations will be increasingly international. These individual collaborations are being replicated at the national level. Research Impact Canada is collaborating with the US-based Advancing Research Impact for Society network. Together they are developing a research impact and stakeholder engagement tool kit for the INORMS RISE working group and are planning a joint cross border impact conference in 2021. Driven by international rankings such as THE Impact Rankings, the future of KMb will see the growth of impact literate practitioners and institutions dedicated to using investments in research to benefit society.

4. The Landscape for KMb and Impact: How are we going to get there?

            The future of KMb and research impact will see impact become a core feature of the research enterprise, the building of individual and institutional impact literacy, and the internationalization of impact theory and assessment. But universities are operating on a business model that looks similar to early universities back to the University of Bologna in 1088. Universities are slow, if not resistant, to change. But they do respond to external and internal opportunities should they choose to move towards becoming a  “permeable university,” a term coined by the University of Lincoln late in 2019[4] to imagine a university that is open and responsive to local and global communities. See table 2 in the full report, where we suggest several key leverage points for those opportunities.

[1] See the report for full references to cited sources.

[2] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/rankings/impact/2019 

[3] https://www.chairs-chaires.gc.ca/program-programme/strategic_research_plan-plan_recherche_strategique-eng.aspx

[4] https://staffnews.lincoln.ac.uk/2019/11/25/the-permeable-university-a-new-manifesto/