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Boundary crossing research needs knowledge brokers

The need to generate multi-disciplinary cross-sector research is by now well established. But Katherine Welch, Siobhan Morris and James Paskins argue for further consideration of the expert roles required to make this happen
This article is more than 1 year old

Katherine Welch is Deputy Director of External Partnerships at UCL Public Policy

Siobhan Morris is Head of Programmes for the Grand Challenges of Cultural Understanding and Justice & Equality at UCL

James Paskins is Deputy Director of the UCL Grand Challenges

One of the many outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic was greater visibility of the role played by universities in tackling societal challenges, and the need for cross-disciplinary research to generate solutions addressing complex problems.

For the research community, it also highlighted both the public interest in, and at times mistrust of, experts and the need for research to be situated within a broader ecosystem of experience, knowledge and expertise.

For research institutions to deliver their civic mission, impactful research must be designed, developed and delivered in partnership with other actors – the central tenet of the growing move towards co-production. This cross-boundary approach, moving research beyond the sole purview of research institutions, is increasingly being recognised and championed by funders and institutions (for example in UKRI’s strategy, pan-council research calls, and prominence in REF impact case studies), as well as being welcomed by partners in policy, industry and communities across the country.

However, venturing into cross-boundary working is inherently complex. The research challenges, be they around climate, health, inequalities or other pressing global concerns, transcend research disciplines, skills silos and latent knowledge and experience. Multiple partners bring their own perspectives, ideas, ways of working and barriers to engagement and entry. There are also the practical challenges around managing and maintaining relationships, administration of budgets, access to and sharing of skills, resources, data and ownership and use of IP.

As this way of working has emerged, much focus has been placed on what could be termed the end goal, generating multi-disciplinary and cross-sector research and knowledge exchange to address societal issues. Less attention has been given to how we can enable and deliver cross-sectoral research and knowledge exchange, or to the roles needed to do so.

Hubs as well as spokes

While these roles are emerging in targeted areas of practice at some institutions, such as public or policy engagement, for research impact these broker roles are much less common. Yet the nature of partnership building requires brokerage roles that are distinct from knowledge exchange facilitators or research facilitation practitioners. Such roles necessitate that knowledge broker professionals be proficient in speaking the languages of multiple disciplines, engage with a wide range of expertise, and identify and make connections beyond higher education.

However, they also require horizon-scanning, relationship and project management expertise, as well as negotiation and diplomacy skills. Critically such brokers need an awareness of the varying needs and objectives of different partners, including internal ones – what may be impactful for one partner may not be a useful outcome for another. Consequently, brokerage roles must be fluent in multiple languages of academia, industry, civil society, and community partners and understand their different ways of working.

In addition, knowledge brokerage roles play a critical function in supporting a dynamic operating environment – enabling experimentation through building trust between collaborators, brokering innovative partnerships or ways of working, and creating multi-disciplinary research teams. To do so often means working in agile and responsive ways.

In such ways, knowledge broker professionals act as pivotal centres of exchange and engagement. While the individual spokes of research expertise, partnership building, impact and evaluation are all vital to cross-disciplinary research, focus must also be attributed to the knowledge broker as a hub that connects all such spokes together.

Seizing the opportunity

Knowledge brokers are part of an emerging trend of cross-boundary working, one that promises to significantly enhance the positive societal impact of research institutions. However, for such work to have greatest efficacy and success, knowledge brokerage professionals are needed to play their part in nurturing and bridging collaborations, spotting opportunities for impactful partnerships, and facilitating exchange.

To enable this, universities need to support the development of agile teams that have the appropriate skills and recognition to facilitate collaborations that harness synergies across sectors and can respond rapidly – as evidenced so starkly by the pandemic.

Alongside this, a mindset shift is needed so that institutional systems, including training and career progression pathways, better recognise the importance of these roles, increase visibility of the functions brokerage professionals play, and support these hubs that hold the spokes of research and knowledge exchange together. To be effective, knowledge brokers need to be visible in their institutions and for colleagues to understand the potential of their skills to facilitate effective collaborations and enhance the reach, output, and impacts of research.

Knowledge brokers harness the creativity and innovation of both the research community and networks of external partners to generate solutions to complex societal problems. But we all need to better evidence and advocate for these critical roles and the work they do to enable universities to respond to today’s most pressing challenges.

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