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Getting the Message(s) Out

October 1, 2017
By: 
Brenda Brouwer
Vice Provost and Dean of School of Graduate Studies & President of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies
Queen’s University

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” It follows that if you understand it well, you must be able to explain it simply. While graduate students develop expertise in writing and communicating to academic and expert audiences in their respective fields, they are rarely encouraged to reach beyond. Consequently, they often find themselves to be less adept at articulating their ideas, discoveries and the impact of their research in ways that people outside of their area of study can understand, appreciate and integrate into their own thinking. As such, would-be connections between research and policy, practice, and action are severely hampered.    

Every year, PhD students submit over 7000 dissertations to Canadian universities (based on Statistics Canada data) - a staggering amount of original research that spans all disciplines. According to ProQuest, which adds more than 130,000 new dissertations and theses to its largest database every year, any given thesis is accessed no more than five times.

While research, particularly in STEM disciplines, is typically disseminated through journals, academics’ outlet of choice, the consumers of these new ideas and discoveries should be much broader to optimize the potential for uptake and sparking innovation. We are failing to mobilize an incredible amount of knowledge. Confining discourse and dissemination to select audiences impedes creativity and actualization at a time when interdisciplinarity and inter-sectorial collaborations are paving the way to novel solutions to complex problems. It is these collaborations that are driving the knowledge economy forward to potentially benefit communities and societies on a global scale.

The research conducted in our publicly assisted universities, often with federal funding, must be accessible to the tax-paying public in its broadest sense. Mobilizing research requires the engagement of key stakeholders including the public, policy-makers, health providers, industry, not-for-profits and businesses. This promotes evidence-informed practices and decision-making as well as helping to foster collaborations and partnerships.

Knowledge mobilization is a shared responsibility, one requiring intentional outreach, communication strategies and platforms that extend well beyond the academic bubble. One such platform is Canada’s Three Minute Thesis Competition, where students present an elevator pitch describing their research, key findings and its relevance or significance. Last year, more than 75% of Canada’s graduate degree- granting universities held competitions to showcase graduate research, engaging and inspiring live audiences, gaining media attention and forming social networks. Over 2,000 Canadians viewed Canada’s finalists on YouTube. Clearly there is a broad-based receptiveness to new ideas, technologies and breakthroughs cultivated in our universities.

Making research accessible to audiences in and outside the academy holds numerous benefits. It can catalyze collaborations and partnerships, while stimulating job creation, product and policy development, and social innovations that benefit companies, organizations and communities. Canada has considerable raw talent in its highly qualified graduate degree holders, but must do more to leverage their discoveries, and enable them to effect positive change from which we all stand to benefit.

Indeed, the research and talent output from graduate education underpins Canada’s capacity to become a more economically and socially robust country. While universities have a responsibility to facilitate knowledge dissemination in ways that enable mobilization, so too do governments, businesses, and organizations to capitalize on discovery and apply new knowledge for the benefit of society.