Making your research accessible

Four strategies for improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers.

By 18 November 2015

The growing urgency and complexity of sustainability problems, from climate change and biodiversity loss to poverty and inequality, present a significant threat to many societies.  Often described as wicked problems, these issues are characterised by high levels of uncertainty, contested values and political and administrative uncertainty.  As a result there are renewed calls for improved strategies that enhance knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate evidence-based decision-making.

Barriers to knowledge exchange 

Throughout the knowledge exchange literature, conventional approaches to knowledge exchange (i.e.- linear pipeline models of communication) and cultural differences between scientists and decision-makers have been well established as key factors undermining effective knowledge exchange among the two groups.  More recently, however, a new suite of evidence suggests that a range of other barriers also exist, and in some cases, compound and reinforce existing issues.

For example, in relation to marine resource management, institutional (dis-) incentives and structures are known to reinforce cultural differences.  A recent survey of 78 marine scientists from 19 individual research organisations found that while engaging with decision-makers was important to scientists on a personal level, a range of institutional barriers prevent this from happening.  These included inadequate measures of science impact that do not account for engagement activities, a lack of organisational support for engagement activities, insufficient time to conduct engagement activities in addition to other responsibilities and a lack of funding to support engagement activities.

A number of structural impediments related to science in-accessibility have also been documented and suggested as a key barrier, preventing knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers.  For example, a recent review of 222 published scientific papers across a four year period in relation to marine protected areas management found that it takes more than three years for scientific articles to be published following data collection, and as such, information may be out of date and less useful to decision-makers by the time it is made available.  Furthermore, over half of this scientific literature was not freely available to decision-makers, due to scientific journals requiring subscription to access the contents.

While this list of barriers is not exhaustive (but see Cvitanovic et al, 2015) they serve to illustrate some of the key barriers undermining knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, and highlight the need for new approaches to support evidence-based decision-making.

Four Strategies for improving knowledge exchange 

While the barriers preventing the integration of science into decision-making processes have been well documented, the solutions remain less certain. In general, however, it is expected that decision-makers are more likely to use scientific research in the decision-making process when it is considered salient, credible and legitimate.  In this case, salience refers to the extent to which the outcomes of scientific research are relevant to decision-makers, taking into account the specific contexts in which they operate and information needs that they require.  Secondly, for scientific evidence to be credible it must be perceived by the user to be accurate, valid and of high quality.  Finally, to be considered legitimate, those who produce the information must be seen as free from bias and trusted by the end-user. While achieving all three of these elements represents a significant challenge, the likelihood of success is enhanced via the implementation of collaborative and participatory approaches to knowledge exchange and scientific research.

In response to the need for innovative and collaborative approaches to knowledge exchange, several novel approaches have been identified and developed in the scientific literature.  Of these, perhaps the most widely advocated approach is knowledge co-production (Fig 1a). Under this approach, managers actively participate in scientific research programs from the onset, collaborating with researchers throughout every aspect of the study including design, implementation and analysis.  Including decision-makers in research programs in this manner ensures that decision-makers develop a strong understanding of the research content, as well as developing a strong sense of ownership in the research, which they can then communicate more broadly within their organisation, raising the awareness of others.

 

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Figure 1) Conceptual diagram outlining the four primary models believed to increase knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers (as published in Cvitanovic et al, 2015)   

Improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers can also be achieved by embedding scientists in decision-making agencies (Fig 1b).  Permanently embedding research scientists within organisations dominated by decisions-makers will improve the likelihood that priority knowledge gaps will be answered, with the information quickly spreading among decision-makers via social networks.  In turn this will increase the likelihood that new scientific knowledge is integrated into decision-making processes.

Another approach to improve collaboration and knowledge exchange among marine scientists and decision-makers is through the use of knowledge brokers (Fig 1c).  While the exact role and function of knowledge brokers are conceptualized and operationalised differently in various sectors and settings, the key feature of such a role is to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between and among various stakeholders, including researchers, practitioners, and policy makers.  To achieve this knowledge brokers are typically embedded within research teams or institutions and act as intermediaries that develop relationships and networks with, among, and between producers and users of knowledge, to facilitate the exchange of knowledge among this network.  When implemented effectively, knowledge brokers are believed to have the ability to facilitate organisational change by removing barriers to evidence-based decision-making, and promoting a culture that values the use of the best available science in policy and practice.

Finally, boundary organisations have also been identified as a novel approach to improve knowledge exchange among producers and users of scientific knowledge.  Like knowledge brokers, boundary organisations facilitate communication and knowledge exchange among diverse networks of stakeholders.  However, unlike knowledge brokers boundary organisations are not typically embedded within research teams of organisations but are established as a separate entity (Fig 1d), thus more effectively representing both sides across the boundary (i.e.- science and decision-making) while maintaining credibility through independence.  In this way, boundary organisations can unite groups that may otherwise have strained relationships (for example, based on the cultural differences between scientists and decision-makers as outlined above) to enhance evidence-based decision-making.  Boundary organisations have already proven particularly effective when dealing with a specific issue in a specific location.

Conclusion

While all four options described above are designed to improve knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, it is also important to note that additional research is needed.  For example, future research is required to understand the traits that influence the effectiveness and efficiency of each option, as well as to develop methods to monitor and evaluate their effectiveness.  Irrespective, the increased awareness and implementation of these approaches to date provides an optimistic outlook for improved knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, leading to improved capacity for evidence-based decision-making in the face of complex and uncertain futures.

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  • Adrian Goodrich

    I wanted to mention how knowledge brokers help in my governmental service. The Training Development department of my governmental service relies on knowledge brokers to Translate our research and papers to the Stakeholders. Each product built by the training development department is run through the The ADDIE model. This is the generic process traditionally used by instructional designers and training developers. The five phases—Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation—represent a dynamic, flexible guideline for building effective training and performance support tools. Course managers are the knowledge brokers who effectively sell our training products to the stakeholders. Without the knowledge brokers much is lost in the translation and decision makers often will not move forward on just the research alone.