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London Research and Policy Partnership

Knowledge Brokerage: building academic research and policymaking collaboration


LRaPP interview with Dr Ilias Krystallis

Ilias is a full-time Associate Professor in Engineering Project Management at UCL and CAPE-GLA Policy Fellow. As a Fellow, he has dedicated his time to a knowledge brokerage function in the GLA to build knowledge networks between GLA staff and academics in London and beyond, bringing together communities of practice by engaging with LRaPP.
Here we interview him about his motivations and findings. 

Can you tell us a bit about your career and how you got interested in research and policy collaboration? 

My research interest is in studying projects. We know a great deal about how products and services are developed and produced with the help of projects. An important feature of this work is what is called ‘temporary organising’: organizing in flexible, ad-hoc ways that involve frequent adaptations to opportunities and changes. This form of work also extends to policy, yet we do not think of policymaking as a project-intensive sector, the same way we think of construction, for instance. Policy is an exciting field to research, and in my view, represents the apex of ‘temporary organising’, requiring policy professionals to engage in flexible, ad-hoc ways of working that involve frequent adaptations to opportunities and challenges in their work. Getting hands-on experience working directly with policymakers gives me great insights into how the policy world works and how decision-making at the policy level takes shape. 

You have spent the last year surveying academic researchers and policymakers in London about their experience of trying to engage with each other.  Can you tell us more about your research?

Sarah Jasim, a specialist in social care and public health – and I, were recruited as Policy Fellows embedded within City Intelligence Unit in the Greater London Authority (GLA). We were interested in the possibilities of building relations between policymakers and academics in London and beyond. We began with a survey of London academics and policymakers. We collected 127 written responses. We then conducted interviews with 107 participants spanning 30 – 90 minutes. Participants were sampled across different disciplines, institutions/teams and policy areas, and with different levels of experience of research-policy collaboration. 

Your research focused particularly on ‘knowledge brokerage’. What do you mean by this and what did your research find? Are academics and London government working well together? 

Knowledge brokerage is about connecting and facilitating relationships, interactions, and engagement between communities that speak quite different languages - in this case between academics and policymakers. We have found that there are several pockets in London where academics and London policymakers work well together. But for the most part, relations that do exist are developed through informal personal connections. For example, a policymaker mentioned that she moved to a team that worked in an area in which one of her old professors was doing work. So, she reached out to him for help and the professor became an impromptu advisor to the policy team. The general message from both academic and policy communities was that they wanted a service that would formalise knowledge brokerage, reducing the reliance on personal networks. 

You write about the importance of ‘ecotones’.  What do you mean by these? 

Ecotones are hybrid networks situated at the interface between two disparate ecosystems. Ecotones feature a mix of different types of communities, e.g. science and policy, or science and business, and contain a larger variety of actors than the separate ecosystems themselves. Their boundaries are not strictly defined; their main purpose is to support exchanges between adjacent ecosystems. Policymakers, funders, scholars and business practitioners are simultaneously producers and consumers of evidence use. Knowledge brokerage is the link that connects the actors from across an ecotone. LRaPP is an example of an ecotone that is situated at the interface between London policy and London's academic research. 

How would you see us getting from where we are now to where we need to be?

Through our research, we were able to develop a three-stage framework. 

At Stage 1, relations between researchers and policymakers are unstructured and reactive and often depend on personal connections – a policymaker reaches out to a former teacher or someone they met at a conference. The projects delivered at this stage respond to short-term challenges/requirements. They do not yet form part of the coherent work programme of the ecotone. The brokerage predominantly tries to establish momentum, creating several pockets of knowledge that attempt to demonstrate ‘proof of concept’ but are disconnected.

At Stage 2, knowledge brokerage becomes more structured, strategic and better resourced, though focused on one or a small number of well-defined policy challenges (e.g., net zero). In Stage 1, policy focus deals predominantly with urgent issues; in Stage 2, partners are able to look further ahead. We identified a couple of examples of what seemed like successful Stage Two partnerships. For example, the Alan Turing Institute in Kings Cross, London, has built a successful ecotone on data science and artificial intelligence, and the Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group on challenges associated with population ageing in urban environments. 

Stage 3 is characterised by a structured brokerage service that can support joint working across a broad range of issues – in the case of London, this could be all the issues of relevance to London government.  This sort of partnership should allow a change in the terms of exchange between researchers and policymakers. In stage one and to some extent in stage two, policymakers look for help with their problems and researchers look for help with their research. In stage 3, they work together to conceptualise problems and areas of inquiry. We get a deeper partnership, where both the problem and the solution are jointly owned. The Climate Action Unit (CAU) at UCL provides a good example of a partnership of this type: it has developed a series of training sessions to ensure the relationship between academics and policy teams does not fall into the client-contractor mode and instead promotes joint working on an equal footing. Stage 3 partnerships will also draw in a broad range of academic disciplines, public sector expertise and business and community stakeholders. 

What would this look like practically? What do you see as being some of the key services that a research policy partnership needs to provide?

From engaging and consulting with academic researchers and policymakers throughout London, across different policy areas and disciplines, we have developed a deep understanding of what services must be provided from LRaPP.

First, everyone wants matchmaking with a human face! The combination of London’s fast-paced policymaking, time-poor individuals, and often urgency to assemble teams and projects – the value of facilitated connections was placed highly. No one wants to trawl through (often outdated) websites, send cold e-mails (which are likely to bounce back if the person has left their role), and as early engagement is considered vital to evidence-based policymaking – this can be difficult when pre-existing relationships are not there (especially when cross-sectoral or interdisciplinary working is required). 

Second, the current training offers of ‘how to engage policymakers in research’ are piecemeal, aimed largely at engaging national government and vary given the size and disciplinary focus of individual Higher Education Institutions. A more London-tailored training offer, accessible to all researchers in London regardless of their individual institution is needed.  
Third, a knowledge brokerage structure/network for London needs to be developed – to move away from ad-hoc engagements. There are currently a variety of Policy Fellows, MSc students, PhD students, and people who can ‘code-switch’ from previous experience – but this has all been down to individual choices, opportunities and perhaps some luck! With a better structure and strategy, there would be formal routes for MSc students to undertake policy-relevant projects, embedded researchers, secondments, and dual roles would be common – enabling better knowledge flows and opportunities for all. 

Finally, the UK government, Parliament and the Scottish government, among others, have begun publishing Areas of Research Interest (ARIs), which alert researchers to the questions that government wants answers to. We need to start publishing these for London. This has been a passion project for LRaPP co-founder Michelle Reeves for some time. London focused ARIs would allow researchers to better align their research with London’s priorities – enabling structured long-term academic-policy partnerships.