By Christine Knight and Claire Lightowler
In 2010, Dr Claire Lightowler and I were invited to take part in a symposium on Changing academic and professional identities in higher education at the SRHE Annual Conference, organised by Professor Rob Cuthbert. This was my entrée into the world of higher education research.
Following a PhD in food studies, of all things, in 2008 I had found myself working in a new kind of role in the academic social sciences – that of knowledge broker, with a remit to support the use, impact and dissemination of research. Claire had found herself in a similar position, and when we first crossed paths at a professional networking event in Edinburgh, it was a relief to find someone who shared some of my bewilderment.
By 2010 we had both begun to make sense of our roles, but were also realising that our confusion and sense of isolation were not unique. Other knowledge brokers we met described similar feelings. Although these posts were growing fast in UK academia (especially the social sciences), few people seemed to know quite what to do with them or how to manage them. So we did what only two PhD-trained university staff would do to make sense of our situation: we wrote a journal article about it (Knight & Lightowler 2010, Reflections of ‘knowledge exchange professionals’ in the social sciences), and then applied for some money to do some research.
In late 2010 we secured funding from the University of Edinburgh’s Moray Endowment Fund to interview other ‘people like us’ in the university’s College of Humanities and Social Science. During 2011 we interviewed 13 knowledge brokers. With due regard for academic publishing schedules, we published our findings in 2013 in the journal Evidence & Policy (Lightowler & Knight 2013, Sustaining knowledge exchange and research impact in the social sciences and humanities), as part of a special issue on knowledge brokers.
Our article explores the emergence of specialist knowledge brokers within UK universities in the social sciences and humanities. We describe how our interviews with knowledge broker staff at the University of Edinburgh identified a tension between the research impact agenda and the value placed on knowledge brokerage. Funding models, short-term contracts, and posts combining knowledge brokerage with other functions result in a transient population and a squeeze on knowledge brokerage, which may limit its effectiveness in achieving research impact. We suggest there are four key implications from our findings:
- Universities should reflect on how to capture learning and maintain relationships developed by knowledge brokers.
- Universities, research and funding councils should consider whether project-based funding is the best way to support knowledge brokerage roles.
- More could be done to support professional development of knowledge brokers.
- Universities should consider career development pathways and support for knowledge brokers.
Research into higher education, and research about knowledge exchange, are broad fields with overlapping concerns but sometimes less dialogue between them than might be expected. We hope that by drawing these developments to the attention of higher education researchers, we may prompt new insights that will help both groups understand and respond to recent changes in UK higher education – just as the invitation to the 2010 SRHE Conference was a catalyst for us.
Dr. Christine Knight is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) in the College of Humanities and Social Science, University of Edinburgh
Dr. Claire Lightowler is Director of the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice (CYCJ) at the University of Strathclyde