By Dr. Lisa Wood, Associate Professor
School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia

Dr. Lisa Wood photoCanada is often looked to as being at the cutting edge of knowledge translation and mobilization. Knowing this encouraged a spark in me to spend a month in your country to see how it is done on the other side of the world. The normalised existence of knowledge networks such as KNAER-RECRAE was a wonder to behold, and something that I would love to see flourish ‘down under’. While there is a growing impetus to bridge research, policy and practice in Australia, it is yet to gain the momentum and resourcing that I saw in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada.

But from our different sides of the globe, we are wrestling with some of the same challenges. Applying a knowledge mobilisation model to ‘tricky settings’ is a case in point. In our recent maiden journey into prison research (evaluating a mental health program in 7 prisons) we discovered for example, that best practice principles about engaging with ‘target groups’ and co-creation of knowledge can be thwarted by bureaucracy and institutional roadblocks. Similarly, well intended measures to protect vulnerable population groups from the adverse consequences of research, can inadvertently mean that research becomes ‘too hard’. Consequently the voices of vulnerable groups such as prisoners continue to not be heard.

Being able to communicate “research speak” in lay language is one of the hallmarks of knowledge mobilization. But sometimes we are forced to use specific jargon and formats outlines by the very context of our research environment. It seems this is not unique to Correctional Services as we have also sacrificed child-friendly wording to comply with Education Department ethics! Maneuvering knowledge mobilisation in tricky settings thus requires us to be resilient in the face of obstacles, and to think about ways around these issues. For example, we didn’t want the boring and onerous sheets and forms to deter subject participation. So we put a lot of effort into speaking personally with the prisoners and key prison staff about the benefits of the research. This approach gave our study a friendly face.

Knoweldge Translation (KT) plans for research projects are in vogue. But when doing research in tricky settings or on sensitive issues, things often do not go to plan making trade-offs necessary to navigate a pathway to research dissemination and application. For one, there are political sensitivities and bureaucratic constraints around the release of research findings. To illustrate my point, we had an ex-prisoner willing to do a great interview about the program evaluation with the media. However, getting approval to release the findings took months, and by that time we received acceptance, he had disappeared! But we must not be discouraged by these moments. Even if we use best practice strategies to advocate for research uptake into policy or practice, the timing may not align with the ‘political will’ to act on your research.

Despite the challenges, there are also positive and powerful lessons to be learnt from embarking on research in tricky settings. Sometimes understated in the knowledge translation literature, there is immense value to be gained from investing time in the building of relationships with key gatekeepers and on the ground enablers. So if you happen to drive 60km to a prison and the scheduled interviewees turn out to be in solitary confinement, that time could be well spent instead chatting to staff who were key allies in research recruitment. We also spent time building convivial rapport with the facilitators delivering the program we were evaluating, and they became great ambassadors for the research study.

Embedding a knowledge mobilization approach into research in tricky settings may not be easy, but we must persevere. For it is the vulnerable populations and the settings that are often cast as ‘too hard’ that have most to gain from reducing the disconnects between research, policy and practice.

Dr. Woods presented Behind Bars: Knowledge Generation and Mobilisation in Tricky Settings at the Canadian Knowledge Transfer and Exchange Community of Practice (@ktecop) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on January 22, 2015. You may download her presentation by clicking on the title.

If you would like to continue the conversation with Dr. Wood, then please contact:

Dr. Lisa Wood
Associate Professor
School of Population Health, The University of Western Australia
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.