Knowledge Mobilization and the Academy: A Guest Post from Dr. Erin Tolley

Below is an excellent guest post on knowledge mobilization from Dr. Erin Tolley, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. It provides some very practical and timely advice for those of us filling in the knowledge mobilization section of our SSHRC grants!


A few weeks ago, Chris Alcantara wrote a great post about knowledge mobilization and the communication of research results to non-academic audiences. In his post and the comments that followed, Chris raised a number of questions about how best to facilitate knowledge transfer and asked, in particular, if we need a “rethink” of traditional modes of communicating research results.

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I would come down firmly on the side of yes, particularly if your aim is to engage government decision-makers and policy analysts. This is true now more than ever, with austerity measures pinching bureaucrats’ time, and budgets for training and travel having been all but gutted. Whereas many government departments once maintained their own in-house libraries, these have largely been shuttered leaving policy analysts without any reference support and no access to the scholarly books and gated journals to which most academics direct their publishing efforts. With luck, an enterprising policy analyst might be able to direct some government resources toward the purchase of policy-relevant research publications, but this is rare. Even rarer would be the opportunity to attend a conference outside the bounds of the National Capital Region to hear academics present their research. That said, in the mid-level of the public service, there are increasing levels of education. Most new policy analysts now have at least a Master’s degree, and many have PhDs. Given this, there is an appetite for research, in addition to the skills and qualifications to understand and apply those insights.

This is not, then, a matter of “dumbing down” but rather of communicating the findings in ways that speak to the target audience. Long discussions about the theoretical framework or the extant literature will not interest most policy analysts. Too much methodological detail will bore or distract. No tables of regression coefficients! No p-values! Tell your audience which parts of your research are significant and really matter. If they would like more details, they will ask.

What will interest this audience most is the policy relevance and implications of your research. What do your findings tell policy-makers about their policy area? Where are the policy gaps? What are the most fruitful areas for action? (Hint: this should be something other than “More research is needed”).

To do this effectively, you need to know your audience. Read the legislation or policies that are most relevant to your field of study. Consult recent Standing Committee reports or other parliamentary publications. Take a look at the media releases from the government departments most centrally connected to your work. Read the department’s most recent Report on Plans and Priorities. Search the Government Employee Directory (GEDS) for the names of policy analysts who work in your field. Contact them. Talk to them. Ask them questions about what they do. Use this to inform your research.

When you communicate your results, remember the constraints that policy analysts face: limited dedicated reading time, tight deadlines, and a need for concise communication. Can you put your results into a “2-pager” that gives a brief synopsis of your work, your main findings and their policy relevance? CERIS has an excellent template. Include your email address. Send it to policy analysts working in your field. Post it on your personal webpage or in any other “Googleable” format. Write an op-ed about your work. Maintain a social media presence.

Contact one of your policy contacts and ask if they would be interested in having you present your work to their colleagues. Most departments have a “Brown Bag” lunch series, and they’re generally quite happy to host researchers with relevant new findings. Make the most of these opportunities when they arise. Don’t present a conference paper; policy analysts prefer PowerPoint or a handout. Provide it in advance. Make contacts once you’re there. Follow-up with them. And don’t ask—even jokingly—if they will give you money for your research. You can save that for the second date.

Erin Tolley is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Prior to pursing doctoral studies, she worked for nearly a decade in the federal government.

Explaining the Emergence of Indigenous-Local Intergovernmental Relations in Settler Societies: A Theoretical Framework

Authors: Jen Nelles and Christopher Alcantara

Published October 2013 in Urban Affairs Review.

Abstract: There has been growing interest among practitioners and academics in the emergence of intergovernmental relations between local and Aboriginal governments in Canada. Initial research has focused on describing the nature of these relations but has yet to develop any theoretical expectations regarding why some communities are more likely to cooperate than others. We addresses this lacuna by developing a theoretical framework for explaining the emergence of cooperation between Aboriginal and local governments. After identifying a set of variables and specifying how they are likely to affect the propensity of communities to cooperate, we conclude with a discussion of how future researchers might use this framework to investigate cooperation and noncooperation between Aboriginal and local governments in Canada and in other settler societies.

Avocascience? Or Objective Neutrality?

From a recent post by Jay Ulfelder,

“When you hear the term “conflict of interest,” you probably think of corporations paying for studies that advance their commercial interests. I know I do. It’s easy to see why studies on the effectiveness of new drug therapies or the link between pollution and cancer, for example, warrant closer scrutiny when they’re funded by firms with profits riding on the results. You don’t have to be a misanthrope to believe that the profit motive might have shaped the analysis, and there are enough examples of outright fraud to make skepticism the prudent default setting.

That’s not the only conflict that can arise, though. What I think many scholars working in comparative politics don’t appreciate as much as we should is that it’s also possible for political values and advocacy to play a similar role, and to similar effect. When a researcher’s work deals with issues on which he or she has strong moral beliefs, that confluence can hinder his or her ability to identify and fairly weigh relevant evidence. Confirmation bias is hard to overcome, especially in studies that rely entirely on an author’s interpretation, as many qualitative studies do. The problem is even more intense if the researchers’ personal life is interwoven with her work. Certain conclusions may be more palatable or appealing to people with certain values, and it can be professionally and personally damaging for researchers to report findings that suggest the work their friends and colleagues are doing may not be all that useful, or may even be counterproductive.”

I think this is a larger problem than people realize.  We all have certain moral and conceptual beliefs that we carry to make sense of the world and it is very difficult to separate those beliefs from our research and from our assessments of other people’s research.  In that sense, I think we need to be more upfront about these realities and the beliefs that people carry with them.
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In my primary research field, Aboriginal-settler relations in Canada, this is a particularly tricky problem, given that Indigenous peoples have been so disempowered and impoverished by the Crown.  There’s a real temptation to use one’s scholarship and peer review role as advocacy.  I know I certainly struggle with this issue.

As an author, I think the solution is to be upfront about your beliefs.  Recently, I’ve been reading a bunch books on Indigenous methodology and one of the many things that they do right is to announce early on who they are, where they come from, and what kind of perspective they bring to the table.  Rather than pretending to be “objective”, which quite frankly, is an impossibility in my view, we as authors should be up front about our beliefs so the readers know where we are coming from. And reviewers should assess manuscripts by respecting those beliefs rather than rejecting ideas outright because they don’t gel with our own beliefs.

Some of my work, for instance, uses rational choice to analyze treaty and devolution negotiations. During the peer review process, I’ve encountered multiple reviewers who have rejected my research outright because they don’t like rational choice.  Rarely do they ever say why the use of rational choice is inappropriate to the case at hand or how the evidence does not support the argument.

As a peer reviewer, I try to approach new research by accepting the theoretical choices of the author as a given (at least at first). So if an author decides to use political culture, for instance, which is a concept I’m highly skeptical of, I initially accept that choice and ask: a) why is this concept better than others for explaining the phenomenon at hand? b) how well does the author sketch out, deploy, and defend the concept/argument with evidence?

So what are my beliefs? Quite frankly, I think I’m more confused and uncertain about the world than anything else! My scholarship has been characterized as right wing, left wing, moderate, and libertarian, all at the same time by different people. I hope that reflects my commitment to being open to the very real possibility that my past and present views about the world are wrong (or maybe I’m just engaging in Bayesian updating!).