Making your research accessible

Building capacity for improved knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers

By 15 December 2016

Responding successfully to modern-day challenges requires knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers, to facilitate learning and support evidence-based decision-making.

Both scientists and decision-makers are aware of how important it is to exchange knowledge, and both groups are being more strategic about making it happen. However, despite these efforts recent evidence suggests that integrating science into decision-making processes is still a challenge. This is partly because there is little empirically grounded guidance to help scientists and practitioners design and implement research programmes that actively facilitate knowledge exchange.

To help fill this knowledge gap we evaluated the Ningaloo Research Program (NRP), which was explicitly designed to generate new scientific knowledge that would support evidence-based decisions about the management of the Ningaloo Marine Park in Australia ahead of its nomination as a World Heritage Site. We gathered and analysed the perspectives and experiences of the programme participants to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that influenced knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers. This allowed us to identify a set of research design principles that, when implemented, actively enhance knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers. Furthermore, we were able to identify the core capacities that are required to support knowledge exchange processes. Here we summarise our findings as guidance for anyone wishing to increase the impact of their scientific research with end-users.

Principles for doing research that actively facilitates knowledge exchange

The guiding principles generated from our study can be broken down to fit the three stages of scientific research programmes: the development and design phase; the implementation phase; and the period after completion of a research programme (see Figure 1).

When commencing a new research programme, the first step of the design phase should be to identify all the relevant stakeholders via stakeholder mapping. All the stakeholders identified should then be invited into the design phase, so that research questions can be co-developed to ensure that they meet the research needs of all stakeholders. Our results also highlight the importance of including knowledge exchange experts in the design phase of scientific research, so they help the group to identify and plan the most appropriate knowledge exchange processes for the programme. During the implementation phase of scientific research it is critical that all stakeholders remain engaged in the research. This can best be achieved by using participatory research approaches, whereby decision-makers actively participate in the scientific research. To compliment this, research programmes should also include a knowledge broker, whose job it will be to focus exclusively on enhancing knowledge exchange among all the stakeholders. Finally, after completing research programmes it is essential that knowledge is maintained in a way that ensures that it is discoverable, accessible, and understandable. For this reason it is critical that an appropriate knowledge management system is developed that is tailored to the specific needs of end-users.

chris-figure-1Figure 1. Key principles in each of the three research phases that will improve knowledge exchange among conservation scientists and decision-makers (Cvitanovic et al, 2016).


Core capacities to support knowledge exchange

We also identified a range of individual, institutional, and financial capacities that should be developed to support knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers (see Figure 2). Of these, individual capacities were raised most often, particularly the need for teams to include individuals with strong communication skills who also very motivated to engage with others. Study participants also identified the need for decision-makers to have a background in science as a core capacity underpinning successful knowledge exchange activities. To achieve this, management agencies could require scientific training and/or experience as a prerequisite for staff in decision-making roles, or alternatively provide suitable training for staff to develop the required skills. At the same time, scientists need to understand how and why decisions are made, and in particular how to influence decision-making processes. This could be achieved via the provision of ‘policy placements’ for scientists, whereby they are embedded within decision-making agencies as a means of professional development to gain first-hand working knowledge of decision-making cultures and processes.


Figure 2. Core capacities required to support and facilitate knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers (Cvitanovic et al, 2016)

We also identified a range of institutional capacities that must be developed to enhance knowledge exchange activities. Most of these apply to both research organisations and decision-making agencies. For example, knowledge-exchange activities should be included in job descriptions and rewarded appropriately. We also found that both scientists and decision-makers would value having dedicated intermediaries (e.g. knowledge brokers) within their agency to help support knowledge-exchange activities. Some capacities, however, were specific to particular groups. For example, participants emphasised the need for research institutions to provide formal knowledge-exchange training to scientists early on in their career.

Finally, we identified the need for adequate funding to support knowledge exchange activities. Funding for knowledge exchange activities should be separate to research funds and maintained not only throughout the life of a research programme, but also after completion to ensure that knowledge remains accessible.

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Chris Cvitanovic

Dr Chris Cvitanovic is an interdisciplinary Research Fellow in the Centre for Marine Socioecology and Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania, Australia.  Chris’ research focuses on improving knowledge exchange among scientists and decision-makers to facilitate evidenced based decision-making, with a focus on marine contexts.  In doing so Chris draws on almost ten years of experience working at the interface of science and policy for the Australian Government Department of Environment, including almost five years in Marine Park management.  Previously Chris' research has also focused on understanding the mechanisms underpinning the resilience of coral reef systems, primarily herbivory and water quality.