Knowing your audience

Three ways that knowledge brokers can strengthen the impact of scientific research

By 20 April 2017


Knowledge brokers are increasingly advocated as a solution for bridging the gap between science and decision-making. However, despite growing rhetoric regarding the potential benefits of knowledge brokers, the evidence in support of such claims is largely anecdotal. This is, in part, due to the lack of established methods to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of knowledge brokers, or the types of activities they undertake. To address this gap we used social network analysis (SNA) to evaluate the effectiveness of a knowledge broker at connecting scientists and decision-makers over a 12-month period from when the broker began work. We also undertook a qualitative survey of scientists who worked in the same organisation as the knowledge broker to understand the extent to which the knowledge broker increased the impact of scientific research for decision-making purposes. In doing so, we identified three key benefits of using knowledge brokers to strengthen research impact at the science–policy interface.

What is a knowledge broker?

In its broadest sense, knowledge brokerage is defined as the full suite of activities required to achieve evidence-based decision-making. Knowledge brokers are agents who support this agenda by facilitating interaction and engagement among researchers and end-users to enhance knowledge exchange, enable the use of scientific knowledge in decision-making processes, and strengthen research impact. While knowledge brokers are conceptualised and operationalised differently in various sectors and settings, the defining feature of such a role is to develop relationships and networks with, among, and between producers and users of knowledge to facilitate the exchange of knowledge throughout this network and build capacity for evidence-based decision-making.

To achieve this, knowledge brokers build and sustain productive working relationships with a range of stakeholders, be they individuals or organisations, to understand their existing knowledge base and capacity for evidence-based decision-making and to subsequently help build these. Underpinning this is the extent to which knowledge brokers are perceived by their stakeholders as relevant, legitimate, and credible – which requires knowledge brokers to not only have an in-depth understanding of the science that they are to communicate, but also a strong understanding of the stakeholders they engage with, their operational environment, and the most appropriate avenues to influence the research and how it is conducted. In turn, knowledge brokers must also have the ability to interpret and frame stakeholder needs and then communicate those to the research community. Finally, for knowledge brokers to act efficiently it is widely believed that they must possess superior interpersonal, communication, and motivational skills. Thus, while knowledge brokering roles present a number of challenges, when operating effectively knowledge brokers are believed to have the ability to facilitate organisational change by 1) removing barriers to evidence-based decision-making, 2) promoting a culture that values the use of the best available science in policy and practice, and 3) influencing science so that it is appropriate to stakeholder needs.

Benefits of using a knowledge broker

1. Knowledge brokers establish strong social networks between scientists and decision-makers
Over the 12-month period that formed the basis of our study, the knowledge broker’s network grew to include 192 actors (see Figure 1). These individuals spanned over 30 national and international organisations, including government agencies, natural resource management groups, universities and research institutions, community groups, and industry representatives. Furthermore, only 46% of individuals were internal to the knowledge broker’s home institution, demonstrating the dominant end-user focus of these roles.

The SNA provides important insights into the development of this network over time, demonstrating that over the 12-month period the network became more cohesive and dense, suggesting that the knowledge broker was successful at facilitating new relationships between scientists and decision-makers within their network. Indeed, strong social networks such as those facilitated by the knowledge broker have been shown to improve collaborative governance processes by facilitating the generation, acquisition, and diffusion of different types of knowledge and information.

Figure 1. Knowledge broker social network comparing the 3-month and 12-month time periods. N1 indicates Knowledge broker. White nodes indicate researchers within the knowledge broker’s organisation, while Grey nodes indicate external stakeholders (as published in Cvitanovic et al., 2017).

2. Knowledge brokers can help researchers understand the operating environment of decision-making agencies (which can also lead to increased funding success)
The qualitative survey of researchers who worked with the knowledge broker over the 12-month period also revealed that knowledge brokers can help strengthen the impact of scientific research among end-users by helping researchers understand the operating environment of decision-making agencies. Specifically, the knowledge broker was able to help the researchers to understand the information needs of different stakeholders so that scientific research could be tailored to address the current and critical knowledge needs of decisions-makers. That is, the use of a knowledge broker ensured that the research undertaken was highly relevant to decision-makers. This is particularly important given previous studies which have shown that a key barrier undermining knowledge exchange between scientists and decision-makers is a lack of awareness among scientists regarding the information needs of decision-makers. In turn, by understanding the knowledge needs of decision-makers, participants in our study noted that they were more successful when submitting funding proposals.

3. Knowledge brokers can help researchers identify the most appropriate means to influence decision-making processes
Finally, by understanding the operating environments within decision-making agencies, we found that knowledge brokers can help researchers identify the most appropriate means to influence decision-making processes. This included providing guidance to researchers on stakeholder engagement to help improve the individual ability of researchers to engage more effectively (e.g. via workshop strategies, social media training, etc.). For example, as stated by one participant: ‘The knowledge broker has shaped the way that I communicate with stakeholders and provided me with insight into the inner workings of other organisations and their political situations’. Thus these results provide evidence that knowledge brokers can help overcome cultural and institutional barriers between scientists and decisions-makers to promote two-way knowledge exchange among both groups.

Towards a culture of knowledge brokering

Despite the benefits outlined above, knowledge brokers are not routinely implemented as part of organisations’ strategies to link science to action, particularly in the environmental sector which my research focuses on. Historically, this may have arisen from the lack of evidence in support of these roles, particularly given the significant transaction costs that can be associated with their implementation. This is often compounded by knowledge brokers not being recognised as core positions within research institutions or decision-making agencies, and thus when resources are limited, investment is focused on research activities instead of on those associated with stakeholder engagement and knowledge brokering. From the results of this study, however, we suggest that when implemented effectively, knowledge brokers can provide an effective return on investment in numerous ways.

Drawing on the knowledge broker literature from other sectors (e.g. medical and education sectors), key insights regarding the factors contributing to the effective implementation of knowledge brokers can be gleaned. In particular, given the significant time needed to develop an expansive stakeholder network built on mutual trust, and then connect actors within that network to facilitate knowledge exchange, we conclude that knowledge brokers should be implemented as part of a long-term organisational strategy rather than as part of a specific short-term project. Doing so allows for the full development of the relationship among actors within the network which will strengthen over time, thus improving the likely uptake of scientific knowledge into decision-making processes. Accordingly, institutional innovation among research organisations is required to better support the implementation of knowledge brokers, which must also include clear career pathways to support their development.
For further information, please refer to the full article: ‘Using social network analysis to monitor and assess the effectiveness of knowledge brokers at connecting scientists and decision-makers: An Australian case study