Advocates (often) make good research brokers (but sometimes don’t)

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘What do advocates want from policy research? Evidence from elite surveys‘.

Jake Haselswerdt and Elizabeth Rigby

Efforts to advance evidence-based policy quickly recognise the need for ‘research brokers’ to take on the critical role of linking the separate worlds of research and policy. Research brokers work in a range of organisations to transform, translate and package complex research findings into ideas and formats that can be used by policymakers, as well as facilitate meetings and establish relationships between researchers and policymakers. These research brokers are typically engaged in shaping the policy agenda, identifying promising solutions and influencing policy decisions. Yet, we know little about who plays that role, nor how they think about the evidence-policy connection.

Of particular interest are advocates working in foundations, think tanks, associations, lobbying firms and non-profit organisations pursuing specific policy objectives. These advocates are well-positioned to serve as research brokers since they are actively involved in most policy formulation and implementation processes and policymakers often use them as an important source of information. Yet advocates are also participants in the policy process who work to advance their own positions and preferences (and those of employers/clients). Research dissemination is just one of many tools advocates use to advance their policy goals.

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Lone cowboys need a posse (and knowledge brokers need to work in teams!)

Lesley Wye

You know the story. A lone cowboy (unfortunately never a cowgirl) rides away into the sunset having saved the day. The same expectations are often placed on knowledge brokers who bring together different communities to share knowledge and catalyse change. The lone knowledge broker is supposed to be a hero. But speaking from decades of experience, you just can’t do it alone. A single person does not have all the necessary networks, knowledge, understanding, skills or credibility. To be effective, knowledge brokers need teams.

In a unique experiment from 2013–2016, we set up the Bristol Knowledge Mobilisation team. This was made up of four local healthcare policymakers (called ‘commissioners’) and three primary care academics; all of whom had part-time contracts with both the university and in healthcare commissioning. Our aim was for both communities to draw on each other’s knowledge to create ‘research-informed commissioning’ and ‘commissioning-informed research’ (i.e. research of genuine relevance).

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