Researchers from the social sciences and humanities have helped policy-makers during the pandemic. How can we support future collaborations?

Canadian researchers from the social sciences and humanities have stepped up to help the country face the COVID-19 pandemic. In multiple ways, they continue to offer policy-makers the evidence needed to navigate some of the most difficult questions posed by the virus – such as the impact on marginalized populations, the management of food security, and the evolving nature of learning and teaching.

The sharing of research knowledge among diverse groups of scholars, policy-makers, business leaders and community groups is central to our ability as a country to face the next big challenges. To nurture this type of “knowledge mobilization” system going forward, Canada must continue to ensure that research networks are collaborative and inclusive; that existing knowledge is synthesized; and that talent is constantly being cultivated.

Synthesizing knowledge so it can be mobilized

Responding to complex global challenges requires research knowledge drawn from different academic disciplines, reflecting a diversity of methodologies, perspectives and knowledge systems. We see this happening in the context of the pandemic.

But knowledge often must be synthesized before it can be put into action. Evidence, perspectives and knowledge frameworks from different disciplines, communities and spheres of society must be combined to form a complete picture of complex issues.

The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), in partnership with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), recently supported a series of knowledge synthesis projects to address environmental and impact assessments. The 13 funded projects involved more than 60 researchers from different disciplines and institutions. The projects covered issues as diverse as public interest, socioeconomics and Indigenous-led, sustainability-informed assessment practices.

Dedicated efforts were made to communicate the findings and policy implications to policy-makers and to the wider public. The publication of evidence briefs produced by the research teams further aimed to identify areas where Canada could play a vital leadership role in impact and environmental assessments, while inspiring the development of future research agendas.

Knowledge synthesis is an effective mechanism to inform policy needs in the short and mid-term while identifying gaps in research knowledge that academics and partners can immediately pursue through other funding opportunities.

Mobilizing knowledge across disciplines and sectors

The COVID-19 pandemic is the definition of a multi-disciplinary challenge, involving epidemiology, immunology, behavioural psychology, communications, economics and a host of other fields. This made the New Frontiers in Research Fund, launched in 2018, extremely well-placed to respond to the unfolding crisis. The fund brings together the three federal research councils – the SSHRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The fund is now supporting rapid-response projects that address COVID-19 challenges and that explore medical, social and policy measures contributing to global efforts to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.

Environmental projects are also a prime example of why multi-disciplinary collaboration matters. Because such projects can affect communities and ecosystems in so many ways, planners need the benefit of diverse skillsets and perspectives to address the full range of potential impacts.

Just as it requires the involvement of multiple disciplines, knowledge mobilization also requires cross-sector collaboration to ensure different perspectives between academic, government, business and community sectors are brought to bear in the development of effective policies and solutions. Complex challenges such as managing effective global health and wellness systems illustrate the critical linkages between different sectors such as health care, education, public administration and technology. Stronger channels for collaboration among academics, the policy community and business sector leaders will leverage respective areas of expertise and enable an interconnected approach to inform successful policy and practice.

The digital economy is another example of where greater multi-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration is key. Digitalization, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, the “internet of things” and other advancements are transforming the economy and the nature of work — with sweeping implications for education and training, workplaces, society and more.

Building capacity

Sustaining efforts to synthesize and mobilize knowledge will depend on having a deep, multi-generational pool of research talent. Knowledge mobilization activities can be used to foster that talent, including among researchers from under-represented groups.

For example, the International Policy Ideas Challenge (IPIC) organized by Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the SSHRC invites Canadian graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and early career civil-society researchers to submit policy briefs to GAC that propose solutions to emerging international policy challenges. Such initiatives provide research trainees with unique opportunities for exposure to policy-makers, and a platform to advance their ideas and skills. Participants have recognized the challenge as an important training mechanism to build new analytical and communications skills, as an opportunity to inform policy. The policy community, in turn, taps into new generations of top talent to help identify innovative solutions to policy priorities.

Other capacity-building initiatives are emerging across government agencies, such as the dialogue study teams led by the Canada School of Public Service. The teams pair senior public servants and public administration scholars with grad students. The process is a new collaborative model for addressing public service topics. Like the IPIC challenge noted above, it also creates greater access to a growing pool of research talent.

Professional development opportunities for graduate students are critically important at all stages of their training and will serve to strengthen the quality and impact of their research.

From roundtable discussions and workshops with community, business and public sector leaders, to articles and interviews through media outlets, knowledge mobilization activities have advanced at an unprecedented pace because of the challenge posed by the pandemic.  New channels to build, to co-create and to share knowledge across academic, business, community and government sectors are being created. This holds tremendous promise to strengthen the impact of Canada’s research and talent capital.

Canada’s future is full of opportunities presented by the digital age, clean technology and positive social change. Yet there will always be challenges to face. Honing our collective ability to generate, synthesize and mobilize knowledge will help us shape the future to benefit all Canadians.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by 963 Creation.