Knowledge Transfer and Impact – Making Marine and Maritime Research Count

One of my earliest scicomm projects was to work with the Solas International Project Office at the University of East Anglia to create their newsletter. This was my first project in the marine science sector – and the beginning of an association with the sector that has subsequently included working with CEFAS and AquaTT, delivering an infohackit event at Plymouth Marine Lab and playing a key role in establishing the Marine Knowledge Exchange Network.

The Solas International Project office was also where I first met Georgia Bayliss-Brown, who has become a long-term collaborator and colleague. Georgia is a science communicator, and works as Senior Knowledge Transfer Officer at AquaTT, who has been working hard for the last year or two developing a new methodology for Knowledge Transfer as part of the COLUMBUS Project (a €4m H2020 project made up of 26 European partners). This week I attended the final conference of the project in Brussels, as well as a training course in the methodology which was led by Georgia and Cliona Ni Cheallachain.

A brief introduction to Knowledge Transfer

For Knowledge Transfer, read also knowledge exchange, dissemination, communication etc etc. The process is essentially a highly strategic and targeted form of science communication, where a researcher aims to create impact and value for his or her research by designing and following a plan to reach their intended goal, which could be creating policy change, or bringing a new product or technology to market. The COLUMBUS Project refer to this as the Knowledge Output Pathway which delivers a Knowledge Output. Sounds simple?

Why it gets more complicated and yet more awesome

When researchers apply for grants, they are expected to predict the impact of their projects. Imagine a Knowledge Output Pathway of ten steps culminating in the launch of a Knowledge Output. In a three-year project some researchers might reasonably aim to complete all 10 steps, but others might only be able to complete steps 1 to 3. Others will be picking up from another project that got to step 3, and are then aiming to complete 4, 5 and 6. For researchers not working at the later stages of the project it’s understandable that they may feel as if Knowledge Transfer and impact are not relevant.

However, this assumes that the intended Knowledge Output and the end users are the only Knowledge Transfer opportunities created by this research. The COLUMBUS Methodology encourages researchers to consider more broadly what the Knowledge Outputs from their research might be; perhaps they developed a new technique, perhaps they found new meaning in existing knowledge. The methodology examines the constituent parts of the project and considers the possible opportunities of each one.

The COLUMBUS Methodology provides templates for researchers to collect these Knowledge Outputs, add keywords, classify, think about who would be interested and create a rounded profile. This then becomes a unit of knowledge, ready to be put out into the world and create value in some way. A potential return on the public investment made in the research in the first place.

Assessing Knowledge Outputs

This is where it gets very interesting. Researchers using the methodology are encouraged to have their Outputs assessed and reviewed. This is an opportunity to involve colleagues, experts, industry and other partners to review the Outputs and add even more value into the profiles, or perhaps discover new ones. There’s potential for peer support here too, bringing together closely related projects to benefit from the process together.

Designing a Knowledge Output Pathway

For each Knowledge Output, there is an intended impact, the question to consider now is how to achieve it.  Success in Knowledge Transfer relies on an understanding of the network that lies between the research and the impact, and this will be different for every Knowledge Output.

There might be multiple paths through this network, so Columbus encourages researchers to consider the most direct routes, but also the potential side steps that might be required to complete the Pathway.

What’s at stake and where is the value?

So what’s the point? Why is it important? In the case of marine research, it’s literally saving the world. The oceans are essential to life on earth, and there are real and urgent needs being addressed by this research such as climate change, food shortages, and protecting the marine ecosystem. The most watched TV show this in the UK 2017? Blue Planet II. The role of Knowledge Transfer is to make sure that when Europe spends billions of euros on science, that investment is rewarded, value is created and we save the world.

If saving the world is not enough, the marine economy growing; jobs are being created, it’s a great place for start-ups and entrepreneurs to start accessing this knowledge to develop new products and services.

In conclusion

I’ve left the conference with a good understanding of the Knowledge Transfer process and respect for the terminology and processes Georgia and her colleagues have created.

I’m going to explore how creative facilitation (hack events, LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®) might benefit researchers in the early stages of the Knowledge Transfer by empowering them to share knowledge and develop innovative approaches.

I’m also excited to explore ideas about training students to consider how they might transfer their research and embed these principles in their future research careers. I think there’s also a future role for scientists to become “reps” for Knowledge Outputs and consider a career following these pathways, creating networks and delivering impact.

I think research funders and institutions need to consider carefully how they could create value for people within the value chain, rather just than those at the beginning and end. Currently, so much of this networking and brokerage happens by passion and goodwill, and on the fringes of people’s job descriptions. As such, skills in this area go unnoticed and unrewarded. Knowledge Transfer needs to be full of opportunity and reward to encourage SMEs, networks, innovators, investors, incubators, disruptors, entrepreneurs into the space. Let’s make it happen.