We need to talk about equity in knowledge mobilisation

As research partnerships and knowledge become more equitable, we also need equitable knowledge exchange and mobilisation.

16 . 01 . 2023

A movement towards equitable research partnerships and knowledge production has swept across research communities. However, we seem to hear much less about equitable knowledge exchange and mobilisation. Nonetheless, research engagement practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of the epistemic injustices that affect their work and the navigation of the politics of knowledge mobilisation.

A recent meeting of the Research Unit for Research Utilisation at St Andrews University brought together a diverse group of researchers and practitioners to discuss these issues. These things can get a little theoretical so it was exciting to hear the perspectives of both those doing research on research and those working at the coal face in the health and care sectors or with communities around the world, seeking to empower service users, marginalised groups and underrepresented perspectives.

The movement towards the equitable production of knowledge

In the social sciences there has been a longstanding interest in participatory research methodologies that attempt to produce knowledge in more inclusive ways. This has been a key feature in Development Studies that has promoted these approaches since the 1980s, building on concepts from the global south of the value of Indigenous knowledge and cognitive justice. This has supported a more community orientated, transdisciplinary type of research inquiry which seeks to make all voices count equally. We reflected in the meeting that part of the problem for international research is that these principles around equity are not always successfully actualised by Northern research institutions and funders.

The imperative around valuing different ways of knowing is not a unique feature of development research, with its roots in colonialism. Researchers and knowledge intermediaries in low, middle and high income countries, from health researchers seeking to influence clinical practice, to education practitioners tackling issues of race, gender and poverty in schools, to think tanks and civil society movements advocating for inclusive social protection systems, are all grappling with similar challenges.

The movement towards evidence informed policy and practice has largely developed in parallel to these more inclusive forms of research. Whereas social scientists across many disciplines and sectors value the principles of equitable research partnerships and diverse forms of knowledge, it is rarer to encounter this language amongst those directly engaging evidence with policy processes. However, the distinctions between knowledge producers and users have become increasingly blurred and the challenge of getting evidence into use has become more widely understood as a problem of knowledge production rather than transfer. Therefore, we urgently need some concrete recommendations for knowledge professionals seeking a more coherent response to promoting cognitive justice.

Leaving your comfort zone and identifying mutual agendas

The good news is that research communicators, knowledge managers, policy professionals and applied researchers tend to be pragmatists. The thing that gets us up in the morning is the desire to influence real change. However, giving people a voice in research processes is never going to be quite enough on its own. The outcomes we seek tend to sit beyond our immediate spheres of influence. This means engaging with those whose key accountabilities are not to research participants or research communities but to citizens more broadly. Policy makers and practitioners want to know, with some justification, what works and for whom. This creates tensions and sometimes the need for compromise.

In policy and professional practice who the messenger is matters, and it is not always possible to evade engaging with elites or working through systems that are in themselves the products of historic injustices. Engaging with parliaments, government ministries or professional groups means facing the inequities in knowledge mobilisation head on. One has to leave the relative safety of community workshops or research seminars to identify mutual agendas with institutions that remain dominated by powerful actors. It also means asking hard questions about one’s own privilege and identity and our role versus those we claim to represent.

The tension between inclusivity and engagement

Framing research for policy or practice necessitates a degree of empathy with decision makers or key influencers, without diminishing one’s own commitment to challenging knowledge hierarchies. In some political contexts one has no choice but to speak truth to power from the outside of a closed system. However, in many situations this is not the only or even the most effective pathway to progressive change. Epistemically robust and inclusive research does not automatically deliver politically viable policy options. Similarly, the lived experiences of patients or young people may not always offer solutions to all the challenges faced by the providers of health and education services. Therefore, knowledge mobilisers need to perform a balancing act that incorporates both an understanding of the systems they are focused on, along with the imperative to promote social justice and pluralism and help change these systems. However, as we have seen with the response to Covid-19 this is all easier said than done when decisions have to be made quickly in a scientific and political environment of extreme uncertainty.

Inequities between academics and practitioners

And then of course there is the very real inequities that exist between practitioners and academics themselves. Whilst there is a hefty literature dating back at least forty years relating to mobilising knowledge from the theory of science, political science, science and technology studies, and development studies, this often remains disconnected from practice. Innovations in the practice of knowledge mobilisation frequently remain invisible to the theorists and the evidence into practice academic communities. The professional mobilisers rarely influence the development of research projects and if they are lucky have their expertise bolted on at the end. Knowledge mobilisers tend to be younger than their academic colleagues and are more likely to be female and from more diverse educational backgrounds. So, we are dealing with a double set of knowledge inequities: Both those between the researchers and the supposed beneficiaries of their research, and between those doing research and those seeking to get it into use.

Principles of equitable knowledge mobilisation

The conversation around equity in knowledge mobilisation is well grounded in some sectors and is just bubbling up in others. So now is a great moment to bring diverse groups together to share their experiences and understandings. There is tremendous learning to be shared between very diverse forms of knowledge exchange, brokering and uptake, in different sectors and geographies but relatively few spaces to do this. There are some great networks and initiatives underway but they can remain either academic or very technical, and a frequently siloed in specific sectors and geographies. The implementation scientists, impact evaluators, policy influencers and science communicators rarely sit in the same rooms and use completely different vocabularies.

There was talk at the recent RuRu meeting of the utility of a set of principles around equitable knowledge mobilisation, not dissimilar to those adopted by organisations including NIHR and UKCDR around equitable partnerships. Previous attempts have been made but frequently focus on science communications and the voices of participants rather than broader mobilisation processes. At IDS we have been involved in a number of past and present initiatives, including the exploration of research policy partnerships and knowledge translation in the global south. There is so much more we can do to generate concrete steps towards the more equitable, inclusive and effective mobilisation of knowledge in a world that is still characterised by deep cognitive and epistemic injustices. This requires sharing our stories of failures as well as successes and extending the conversation out to a wider constituency of thinkers and doers. Most of all, we need to practice what we preach, and ensure that all voices count.

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