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Published by

Sarah Chaytor and Chris Hewson

14 July 2023, 8:01 UTC Share

The Future of Knowledge Mobilisation: Reflections from the UPEN 2023 Conference

Over the past 5 years, UPEN has grown from a small and convivial group of like-minded people into an extensive community that brings together individuals from over 120 universities and other organisations. Now incorporating academics, research students, impact officers, and knowledge exchange professionals, alongside many others, we have developed from not quite knowing how to describe the work we do, to having an established lexicon with which to articulate our diverse roles as knowledge mobilisers. 

This year’s annual conference, held at the University of Birmingham, showed us what a vibrant community UPEN has become. It illustrated, far better than we could ever describe here, the value of UPEN’s convening function. A packed hall of knowledge mobilisers all working at the academic-policy interface, reflecting honestly and openly on their challenges, triumphs, and ambitions for the future. We can’t attempt to do justice to all of the rich discussions that took place, in the hall and over coffee, but we do want to highlight some of the themes that particularly struck us throughout the day. 

Navigating knowledge.

First, the role that knowledge mobilisation can play in helping to navigate and connect different forms of knowledge. It is an obvious – but no less important point – that as the total volume of knowledge, research and evidence increases, so too does the need to be able to navigate, understand and apply that knowledge to inform policy development and decisions, as well as evaluate outcomes. This cuts both ways – as the complexity and scale of policy challenges increases, so does the need to make more visible and accessible the routes for research, and researchers to contribute. These navigational challenges have implications both for the mobilisation of existing knowledge – how to effectively connect evidence to need, and the production of new knowledge – understanding what gaps exist and how they can be addressed. Our keynote speaker, Jonathan Mills, reminded us of the valuable role that universities can play as proactive navigators and curators of knowledge. Likewise, our CSA panel reflected on the multifaceted role academics must play (which does not always come naturally): navigating uncertainty whilst presenting clear options, skilfully balancing the unknown and the known. 

Crossing boundaries

Second, almost all of discussions mentioned the importance of working across silos, whether in the policy world, academia, or at the interface between the two. Increasingly, both policy officials and academics work in cross-disciplinary teams and draw upon cross-sector expertise to address societal problems. Hence collaborative efforts to communicate policy needs are increasingly valuable, with Rob Davies’ call for cross-Parliament ARI documents pointing to another potential area for improved collaboration at the interstices between research and action. The take-home message is that drawing together different perspectives, areas of knowledge, and experience is a fundamental facet of knowledge mobilisation. 

Convening power.

Third, knowledge mobilisers contribute to cross-boundary working through, amongst other things, their ability to convene different sets of actors to collectively consider specific policy challenges. The value and power of connecting different capabilities, disciplines and experiences was highlighted by Sarah Sharples, particularly the value of consortia and the attendant efforts to coordinate efforts to streamline access to expertise. Such convening also underpins greater scope to collaborate and co-create; Steve Martin noted the importance of co-creating evidence demand as a shared enterprise between academics and policymakers, in order to drive effective cultures of knowledge mobilisation. 

Structured engagement.

Fourth, we heard about the significant progress that has been made by both the UK Government and Parliament to establish routes for engagement with academia. Most notable are the Areas of Research Interest (helpfully summarised in this UPEN report) that have now been developed by every Government department, the UK Parliament, and the Welsh Senedd. It is clear that there are now myriad ways in which to engage, with these now also extending to local and regional government. However, much engagement still relies on individual capacity and capabilities. To this extent, many of our participants agreed that funders, universities, and policy organisations all have a role to play in supporting this capacity, and in improving the infrastructures that support academic-policy engagement. Grant Hill-Cawthorne, and Siobhan Conway and Sarah Carter-Bell from the UK Parliament Knowledge Exchange Unit highlighted the work that POST and the House of Commons Library are doing to make knowledge and expertise more accessible, whilst the imminent launch of an ARI database, outlined by Kathryn Oliver and Annette Boaz, was greeted with considerable enthusiasm. 

A multi-level endeavour.

Fifth, there is an increased and welcome focus on knowledge mobilisation at all levels of policymaking. Our parallel sessions reflected on different scales of knowledge mobilisation – from local community engagement to international dimensions. We heard from our regional and devolved panel about some of the challenges of capacity and enabling sufficiently agile engagement (Kayleigh Renberg-Fawcett); the difficulty in carving out time to think beyond ‘firefighting’ (Liz Shutt), and the need to avoid reinventing local policy wheels (Bec Riley). As our funder panel (James Canton, Ian Stanton and Sarah Cowan) acknowledged, solutions come from the top – around supporting infrastructure; from the middle – supporting innovative projects, particularly those that seek to co-create policy and synthesise evidence; and from below – with reference to supporting mobility programmes and engagement opportunities for those at the beginning of their careers. 

Learning through doing.

Sixth, it was a constant refrain that ‘trying things out’ and ‘adapting as you go’ are critical elements of knowledge mobilisation. We’re learning more all the time about what is effective, with adaptations made on an ongoing and iterative basis. This points to both the value of sharing our individual and collective learning – our reflections, and our highs and lows – and also the difficulties in pinning down our roles within sometimes unyielding institutional structures. It is heartening that as we grapple with these questions within the academy, there is also an increasing focus on professional competencies for the policy profession in government. UPEN has a critical role here as a ‘network of networks’, building and supporting a culture that enables and sustains this shared learning between knowledge mobilisers. This will be a key priority for us over the next two years. 

The evolving ecosystem.

Finally, as the academic-policy interface and the funding and policy landscape continues to evolve, it is clear to us that there is a growing need to embed additional capacity and capability throughout this growing but uneven ecosystem. Encouragingly, our conference discussions show that we broadly know what needs to be done – but undertaking the necessary steps, in the right order, and that work across different scales, is an altogether different matter. An important first step will be continuing to work together in order to create greater porosity and agility at the academic-policy interface – whether through infrastructural alignment, new incentives, more effective models of staff mobility, or more widespread learning and mentorship programmes. Last but not least, we need to better understand how knowledge mobilisation can inform both immediate policy demands as well as longer-term horizon-scanning. 

Perhaps, most significantly for UPEN, there is a growing need for greater coordination and interchange between the different initiatives existing and emerging – many of which were outlined and represented at the conference. As a collective community with a shared purpose, UPEN provides a space where the knowledge mobilisation community can step outside the immediacy of particular schemes and models. The enthusiasm for this was evident and provides us with a clear steer as we forge a pathway to long-term sustainability. Our role is to bring together all those who care about the future of knowledge mobilisation; our task is to build the infrastructure, as well as the space, to improve the academic-policy ecosystem for the benefit of all.

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