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Emerging Professions: Knowledge Broker

CREDIT: Microsoft

As a scientist, do you routinely notice opportunities for research to be translated into tangible benefits for society? Do you believe that science often fails to benefit from what society has to offer? If you would answer 'yes' to these questions, and you're someone who enjoys explaining research to nonscientists, bringing people together from diverse professional backgrounds, and acting as a facilitator, then a career in an emerging area—knowledge brokering—could be an excellent choice for you. But what exactly is a knowledge broker?

The key attribute of knowledge brokering is facilitating a two-way or multiway exchange of information. “A knowledge broker … sits in between knowledge producers, [such as] scientists … and those who use knowledge, such as policymakers, the general public, or people working in the health domain. Knowledge brokers try to bridge the gap that can exist between those two worlds and build connections,” explains Morgan Meyer, a postdoc at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris who researches knowledge brokering. Jobs involving such tasks have existed for a while. There's a close connection between knowledge brokering and certain areas of science policy, for example, and also technology transfer, where the goal is to establish business relationships between academic scientists and the for-profit sector. But knowledge brokering has emerged only in recent years as a distinct profession with its own label and job opportunities, say Meyer and other experts.

“Knowledge broker roles tend to be hybrid, emerging, and ambiguous.” —Christine Knight


CREDIT: ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum
Christine Knight

Well-established professions like journalism and public relations already facilitate the broadcast of knowledge. Knowledge brokering is different in that it creates “an ongoing dialogue and exchange" between researchers and stakeholders, explains Christine Knight, a policy research fellow at the Economic and Social Research Council Genomics Policy and Research Forum in Edinburgh, U.K. Knight works as a knowledge broker—among genomics researchers, social scientists, and policy makers—and as a social scientist studying knowledge brokering roles in the United Kingdom.

Knowledge brokers are often found in organizations at the interface of research and policy, but they can also work at the boundaries between research and health care, research and business, research and the public, and even between different areas of research, Knight says. The conference Bridging the Gap Between Research, Policy and Practice, which Knight organized in London in 2011, was attended by knowledge brokers from many sectors, including government, charities, universities, consultancies, and learned societies, she says.

Just as there is variety in the types of sectors that knowledge brokers work with, there is variety in how their roles are defined. Not many people working in this sector have “knowledge broker” in their job title, Meyer says. Right now, “There’s a whole range of different words used like liaison officers, technology transfer officers, knowledge translators, knowledge intermediaries, and innovation brokers,” he says. Alex Bielak, a senior research fellow and knowledge broker at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) in Hamilton, Canada, says that although these differences in terminology indicate slightly different types of roles, the people occupying all of these roles create a two-way interaction between knowledge producers and knowledge users.

Alex Bielak

Alex Bielak

CREDIT: Andrew Campbell

CREDIT: Andrew Campbell
Alex Bielak

A profession in the making

In recent years, knowledge brokering activities have become more prominent and have converged toward a coherent profession. A driving force has been “the increased focus on the 'knowledge economy' or 'knowledge society' and, more recently, ‘knowledge impact,’ ” Meyer says. This has promoted “the idea that knowledge should be used and useful, should boost the economy, be transformed into marketable products or patents, and have a cultural, social, or political value.”

CREDIT: École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, CSI/Morgan Meyer
Morgan Meyer

In the United Kingdom, "a major factor in the increase in both numbers and professionalization [of knowledge brokers] is the recent inclusion of ‘research impact’ as a measure [used] to rank U.K. universities and determine funding, so investing in staff to promote research impact has become a priority,” Knight explains. A few years ago in the United States, the National Science Foundation introduced the "broader impacts" criterion in evaluating its grant proposals, on an equal footing with "intellectual merit."

Meanwhile, knowledge brokers have been organizing and creating their own support system. With other knowledge brokers, Bielak is helping to “build a global community of knowledge practitioners” as part of the K* Initiative. Bielak was the chief instigator of the initiative, which has received institutional support from UNU-INWEH. The symbol—K*, pronounced “K star”—represents knowledge brokering and related roles.

The K* Initiative has been gathering assessments of the importance and impact of knowledge brokering so that knowledge brokers can use the data to win the support of colleagues and management at their institutions. “You can feel like you are pushing jelly uphill just getting people [in your institution or organization] to understand that what you are doing is valuable,” says Louise Shaxson, a research fellow working at the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank based in London, as part of a team analyzing and providing advice about links between research and policy in developing countries. Shaxson, too, is a partner in the K* Initiative.

Another challenge that the K* Initiative has taken on is knowledge brokers’ struggle to find the tools they need to do the job. K* has been putting together a collection of toolkits that are being used around the world in knowledge brokering and related professions.

CREDIT: Louise Shaxson
Louise Shaxson

What does it take?

While some successful knowledge brokers do not have a Ph.D. or even a science degree, a science background is helpful. “Having a Ph.D. has helped me because it has given me credibility talking to scientists,” says Bielak, who studied the migrations of Atlantic salmon for his doctorate at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

London-based Nick von Behr says that knowledge brokering requires an ability to identify good sources of information and critically analyze evidence. Von Behr, who has a master’s degree in social research—his master's work focused on the history of technology—recently set up his own knowledge brokering consultancy, behr outcomes, aimed at the education and cultural heritage sectors.

Also essential is the ability to communicate science to different audiences, Bielak says. “You’ve got to be able to communicate what you are doing to your neighbor across the fence, all the way to a policymaker who may have a very brief window in which to accept that advice,” he says. To develop such skills, Knight advises taking courses in research communication offered by your university. Also make sure you have a general appreciation of how research is perceived outside the lab, Bielak says. “A Ph.D. student could write a science blog talking about the implications of what they and their colleagues are doing,” he suggests.

Because their role is largely intermediary, knowledge brokers need to be able to relate to people with a broad range of backgrounds, von Behr says. It's essential to understand different ways of thinking and the different contexts in which information can be used. You can develop these skills by engaging with students and researchers from other departments, or volunteering with organizations outside your university. Networking, too, is important for knowledge brokers, he adds.

CREDIT: behr outcomes
Nick von Behr

Event planning is another key activity knowledge brokers engage in. You can start to prepare for this aspect of the job by running student events, Knight says. Someone who is interested in becoming a knowledge broker should also take advantage of any training in project management at your university, she advises.

Mind the gap

Further training might be necessary. Meyer suggests that those with a background in pure science take a course in science journalism, science policy, economics, or management to broaden their viewpoints. Increasingly in Europe and North America, private companies offer knowledge brokering courses, Bielak says.

Even so, few people jump right into a career in knowledge brokering. Knight says that many knowledge brokers first work in policy, training, or communications. After doing a Ph.D. in social science at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, she took a short training course at the University of Melbourne in Australia learning to write for nonacademic audiences. She then joined the South Australian government, helping to translate health care and other research projects into policy and practice, before taking her current position at the Genomics Policy and Research Forum.

Even when you have a position that's focused on knowledge brokering, expect this to be only one aspect of your job. “It’s probably an exception to find someone who does knowledge brokering 100% of their time,” Meyer says. “Knowledge broker roles tend to be hybrid, emerging, and ambiguous,” adds Knight. Some knowledge brokers employed by academia also carry out administrative functions. Others research and write, as Knight does. Knight sees the amorphous nature of the job as an opportunity for professional self-definition. "Think about what you want and have that discussion at interview stage," she advises.

Is it for me?

You can enter knowledge brokering from any scientific background. “In our team [at the Overseas Development Institute], we have a vet, a physicist, an engineer, two economists, a social science researcher, and a mathematician,” says Shaxson, who has an M.Sc. degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University. “It doesn’t really matter where you come from; it’s much more about how you want to work.” In contrast to researchers, knowledge brokers “need a desire to know a lot about several things rather than a huge amount about one small thing,” she says.

Helping others is a big part of job satisfaction for knowledge brokers. “Providing training and sitting down with researchers one on one to develop an engagement plan, I find really rewarding,” Knight says. “It's amazing to watch people realize how their research can be relevant and have impact.”

As for Bielak, he finds great rewards in seeing lives improved. In a previous knowledge brokering role, Bielak and his colleagues undertook research in collaboration with recreational fishing organizations. The research revealed that catching and releasing Atlantic salmon close to their spawning time did not harm their chances of reproduction. This enabled the Atlantic salmon fishing season to be extended by several weeks, bringing much-needed employment to some depressed regions of eastern Canada, Bielak explains. “Being a knowledge broker means you can help make a difference,” he says.

Further reading:

Bielak, A. T. et al. (2008). From Science Communication to Knowledge Brokering: the Shift from ‘Science Push’ to ‘Policy Pull’. Communicating Science in Social Contexts. Berlin: Springer.

Jones, H. et al. (2012). Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Meyer, Morgan. (2010) "The Rise of the Knowledge Broker by Morgan Meyer,"Science Communication 32, 118-127.

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