Knowledge Chaos (KCh)

by rightscholarship

I have had a nightmare vision of the academic future, and it is Knowledge Mobilization (KMb). I saw, in my fevered dream, a vast network of knowledge brokers, knowledge traders, and knowledge hedge fund managers creating a knowledge market that grew to titanic proportions and then just popped . . . when it became clear that nobody was actually using any of this knowledge. People had returned to consulting well-rounded experts, who are adept at knowledge synthesis, which is a skill that can’t be democratized or achieved through social-media collaboration.

Knowledge Mobilization is a model for the dissemination of knowledge acquired through academic research, and is the key idea in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Knowledge Mobilization Strategy. Programs such as York University and University of Victoria’s ResearchImpact (their Mobilize This! blog is on WordPress) are attempting to put KMb into action.

Here’s the basic idea, as I understand it from a perusal of the ResearchImpact site:

A “knowledge-user” needs information to make a decision, so he/she connects with a “knowledge broker” at a particular university. The knowledge broker chooses a number of relevant “Research Snapshots” held by the university, which are plain-language translations of research conducted by university “knowledge-creators.” The broker then passes the snapshots along to the knowledge-user, who uses the information in the snapshots to make a decision about a problem. This is the process by which KMb feeds “Social Innovation.”

I won’t talk about how this approach marginalizes the humanities. A more serious problem arises:

If SSHRC tends to fund research that is ‘relevant‘ to the things that knowledge-users deal with, and KMb supplies knowledge-users with this relevant knowledge, research paradigms will shift in accordance with knowledge-user demands. This will create a system rooted in the present, which means that research designed to be relevant will be rendered worthless when social or economic circumstances change. Research that at first looked shiny and Apple-esque will suddenly look like last year’s IPhone (is there a discount on knowledge that’s past its ‘best before’ date?) and there will be no existing research to draw upon in order to face new, unexpected realities.

A more practical problem is that if policy-makers rely on Research Snapshots to make decisions, they are likely basing their decision on a small number of studies. In even the most science-focused disciplines, research findings can contradict each other. You need an expert in the field who can look at decades of studies and come to a reasoned conclusion.

For example, if you access the ResearchImpact database of Research Snapshots and search under the category of “identity” (maybe you’re a knowledge-user dealing with immigration policy or something similar) you will find two snapshots, each describing the result of a particular research project. Each snapshot features a “What you need to know” paragraph that provides an easy-to-digest summary. The problem is that each of these snapshots provides starkly different advice. Here are the key ideas in each “What you need to know” section:

From research by Ian McGregor: “Identity confusion causes people to become more hostile and aggressive toward those who do not share their beliefs.”

From research by Robert Latham: “Multiversalism is a positive alternative to multiculturalism. Canada is a multiverse made up of many different identities and realms, which intersect and overlap. Canadian identity isn’t fixed or homogenous. Viewing Canada as a multiverse is ultimately more honest and comprehensive. Modern life already tends to be multiversal in nature. Canada has an opportunity to create the first truly transnational society.”

It would seem that Canadian Multiversalism, in which “identity isn’t fixed or homogenous,” would cause social violence if advocated as is recommended by the second study. What is a knowledge-user to do? Forget the knowledge broker: cough up some extra money and hire an expert.

Business models do not suit academia. Not all research can be immediately put to use in the knowledge economy. Some of it will never be relevant, but history is full of surprises, and new and unexpected connections can’t be made between ideas that never came into being because they couldn’t be packaged as commodities and traded.