Is engagement a necessary precursor to impact?

Impact image

In this guest blog, David Phipps (Executive Director of Research & Innovation Services at York University, Canada) discusses the interesting intersection between knowledge mobilization and public engagement.

During the Engage 2014 conference I tweeted this question from Canada:'Is engagement a necessary precursor to impact?'. I didn’t get an answer. But this question is important as our universities and our researchers are increasingly being driven to consider the extra academic impacts of their research. These pressures are coming from (1) Funders; (2) Assessment exercises such as Research Excellence Framework (REF), something we don’t have in Canada; and (3) Institutions who are competing in these spaces but only now starting to consider the implications of institutional norms such as tenure and promotion, something we are working on in Canada through the Engaged Scholarship Partnership.

Before considering if engagement is a necessary precursor to impact we need to consider if there is even a connection between the two. NCCPE defines public engagement as:

“...the myriad of ways in which the activity and benefits of higher education and research can be shared with the public. Engagement is by definition a two-way process, involving interaction and listening, with the goal of generating mutual benefit.”

And REF defines impact as defined:

“ effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Page 26 in the Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions

Therefore if engagement creates mutual benefit and impact defines that benefit beyond the academy then engagement and impact ae related. Since engagement is 'the myriad of ways' and impact is the 'benefit' then impact is what we wish to achieve and engagement is how we might achieve that.

This is exactly what I have said about knowledge mobilization. I have described knowledge mobilization as a suite of services (the how) designed to maximize the extra academic impacts of research (the what).

So are public engagement and knowledge mobilization synonymous? No. And this is best explained using Memorial University of Newfoundland as an example. Memorial has a Research Strategy Framework that calls for the university to (among other things) “create, share and apply research and to encourage, facilitate and value university-community research collaborations.” This is distinct from the Public Engagement Framework which has four goals:

  • Goal 1: Make a Difference! Make a positive difference in our communities, province, country and world
  • Goal 2: Mobilize Memorial! Mobilize Memorial for public engagement
  • Goal 3: Enable Engagement! Cultivate the conditions for the public to engage with us
  • Goal 4: Bridges to Engage! Build, strengthen and sustain the bridges for public engagement

Only three of the eight actions under Goal 1 have a knowledge mobilization element. Therefore knowledge mobilization is a subset of public engagement at Memorial.

Knowledge mobilization is concerned with making research evidence and expertise accessible to organizations seeking to use research to inform decisions about professional practice, public policy, and social/health services. Knowledge mobilization helps make research useful to society by supporting engaged scholarship from inception to impact. Therefore, knowledge mobilization can be seen as public engagement through the lens of research (see figure).

Knowledge mobilization is public engagement but not all public engagement is knowledge mobilization.

Knowledge Mobilisation figure

However, as in many situations, this is not absolute. Systematic reviews (i.e. Cochrane Collaboration and Campbell Collaboration) are strong knowledge mobilization tools but are undertaken by academic researchers with no explicit engagement of end-users/beneficiaries unless they are done in response to end-user needs and have end-users guiding the systematic review process.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities has recently created an Engage Community (you can join here) to promote university engagement throughout the Commonwealth. I am on the Steering Committee of the Engage Community and I have advocated that the various concepts of engagement need to be “unpacked” including the relationship between engagement and knowledge mobilization.

To find out more please join us at the UK Knowledge Mobilization Forum which is being held at the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh April 13-14, 2015. The forum attracts researchers, partners and intermediaries and is the nexus of knowledge mobilization research and practice. There you can further discuss these inter-relationship, unpack some of the concepts and figure out if engagement is a necessary prerequisite for achieving research impact.

What do you think? Is engagement a necessary precursor to impact? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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