One of the great literary experiences of my life was in high school. I was reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the twelfth grade and I found myself consumed with the words on each page, struggling to uncover levels of meaning in the rich, complex text. I often read a page over and over with this goal, sometimes forgetting that to understand the whole story, to access all that Conrad had to tell, I would have to ultimately turn the page.
More than 30 years after Carol Weiss’s seminal work on the relationship between social science and public policy, we are still uncovering the meaning of each page in the story of knowledge utilization. Yet we have learned so much during this time. For instance, research consistently recognizes that findings are valued and interpreted differently by different stakeholders in different contexts. We understand that use is not a monolithic behavior, but a dynamic set of practices in which research can serve instrumental, conceptual, political, and symbolic uses. We have discovered across contexts that the path from research to practice is frought with barriers, such as timeliness, relevance, usefulness, and accessibility. And we have learned that time, organizational norms and culture, leadership, and capacity constrain practitioners’ and policymakers’ engagement with research. These are significant findings which together have contributed to a broad understanding of what we often call the gap between research and practice, and there is undoubtedly more to learn about each of these issues and a growing body of scholars to engage in this work.
But is there more to the story? In October, I represented my R4S colleagues alongside Dr. Cynthia Coburn (Northwestern University) and Larry Palinkas (University of Southern California) in a meeting of Evidence and Policy in Valencia, Spain at the invitation of the William T. Grant Foundation. Our group was small and diverse in nationality, expertise, sector, and discipline. There was much to be learned, and I was eager to participate. The purpose of the meeting was to share ideas about how to move the field forward, or to turn the proverbial page in the study of knowledge utilization. We wrestled with many questions, ideas, and concerns and I left with ideas about what I might find in the chapters ahead.
- Defining the field. We learned that the issue of research use is taken up by a range of fields, including scholars of science and technology studies, implementation science, service improvement, and evidence-based policy. What are the distinctions among these fields? What are their unique contributions? In the context of education research in the United States, we see some of these pieces coming together. For example, I recently attended the conference of the National Center for Scaling Up in which work on continuous improvement, research-practice partnerships, design-based implementation, and knowledge use were presented alongside one another. We are beginning to speak the same language, or at least to a shared audience, but we may need stronger connections in the future.
- Bridging the disciplinary divide. In Valencia, conversations cut across health, education, social work, and more. I was struck by my own limited understanding of what is being done in other fields – from theoretical frameworks to intervention research – to not only understand but improve the impact of research on practice. Education is arguably unique in some respects, but we are missing an important opportunity to expand and deepen our understanding if we continue to work in silos.
- Defining and prioritizing impact. It was immediately apparent to me that the conversation around knowledge utilization in Europe differs notably from the conversation in the United States. Here, we have seen increased traction for research that is rigorous, useful, and relevant. This is evident in funding and in the public discourse. But it is nowhere near the “norm” for research or researchers to be defined by its impact. In the UK, for example, the four higher education funding bodies developed the Research Excellence Framework to evaluate the impact of research beyond academia. Similar initiatives were undertaken by UK research councils (RCUK) and the Economic and Social Research Council. The consistency and pervasiveness of this expectation feels very different than the academic environment of the United States. Importantly, there are varied definitions for impact and undoubtedly more work to be done to generate useful and widely-applicable measures, but unpacking the issue of impact presents an important opportunity moving forward.
- Advancing theory and method. Our discussions also revealed concerns about the limited theoretical foundations of much of the work on knowledge utilization and the need to not only expand the theories adopted in this work but to craft and refine new theories as well. This challenge is paralleled in methods, where the case study as a tool is always useful but not often expanded upon, in part due to the challenges associated with observing research use. We collectively called for broadening the field theoretically and methodologically, and noted that communicating across disciplines and sectors can help to achieve that goal.
- Understanding the mechanisms that couple research and practice. The last major takeaway pertains to the goals of the field. It may be time to move beyond recognition of barriers and facilitators toward an understanding of what links or couples research and practice. That is, when we do see those connections, why are they happening? What mechanisms exist and how do they work? If we seek to ultimately bridge research and practice, then it is not only important to understand the gap between them but also the bridges that exist.
I left Valencia not just motivated – more inspired than anything. The international, interdisciplinary, intercultural exchange was a sneak preview for the chapters ahead. But more exciting than the preview is knowing that the story is yet unwritten, and that I have the opportunity to tell part of the tale.
With that, I’d like to introduce the work of the Center for Research Use in Education where we will spend the next five years rethinking research for schools. We start from the premise that the problem of knowledge utilization is complex, and have studied that fantastic and ever evolving page of the story over and will continue to learn from it even as we move forward. But our aim is to be part of those next chapters. We are not addressing all of the issues laid out in Valencia and focus our work on the last two in particular, as we seek to understand the bidirectional nature of the problem of research use and equally focus on the researcher and practitioner communities in doing so. We also seek to build the methodological toolbox of the field through seven survey instruments designed to capture both the practice of research use in schools and the gaps (and bridges!) between the two communities. Coupled with the work of our partners at NCRPP, the scholars of the W.T. Grant Foundation, newfound colleagues in Evidence and Policy, and researchers in the various fields to which research use is central, we together will unfold the rest of the story.
So what happens next? Stick with us to find out…