Opinion: Knowledge brokers need career paths too

Those who blur the lines between academic and professional staff are the connective tissue in the research ecosystem, says Sarah Chaytor (UCL Office of the Vice Provost: Research).

One of the most impressive elements of Ottoline Leyser’s approach to running UK Research and Innovation has been her emphasis on a particularly inclusive version of "team science". It’s not just the mixture of academics - different disciplines, career stages and so on - that matters, it’s the broader support team too. It’s the administrators and accountants, the web designers and data specialists, the cleaners, porters and receptionists who all form critical components of a flourishing research ecosystem.

Within this ecosystem approach the concept of the "third space" has been receiving increasing attention. This recognises the manner in which the traditional distinction between academic and administrative staff in universities (two professional spaces, in other words) no longer captures the growing number of staff who operate at the intersection of both research and management - a third space.

There is a melding of roles occurring in which professional services staff are increasingly acquiring academic credentials and academic staff are moving in a more project-oriented direction, leading to what has been dubbed the "blended professional".

With growing pressure on universities to demonstrate impact, relevance and public value beyond academe, the third space has evolved to include an increasing number of "knowledge brokers" - the professional research support staff who are tasked with catalysing connections, administering activities and promoting partnerships between researchers and potential research users.

Put slightly differently, their role is to enable the mobility of people, ideas and talents across traditional disciplinary, organisational and professional boundaries. They are hybrid professionals of the highest order in the sense that they blend external expertise with academic insight - and this boundary-spanning capacity is itself often the result of a "braided career" that has allowed the individual to experience a range of research-related environments.

These knowledge brokers are the hidden wiring and the connective tissue in the broader research ecosystem. And yet very often they feel lost in this third space.

As anyone who has ever tried to ride two horses at the same time will know, attempting to straddle two traditionally separate professional spaces can be a painful endeavour. Neither one nor the other, the danger for third space staff is that they become lost or trapped in a professional hinterland that lacks the structure and stability of being either a university administrator or academic.

The benefit of working in the third space is that its lack of embedded structures can encourage creativity, agility and innovation. The downside is that it tends to be a precarious and professionally risky space to inhabit: employment opportunities are often linked to short-term funding; nurturing relationships with academics and potential research users takes time; resources are often limited and expectations high; professional support systems can often be threadbare and promotion prospects poor.

It’s no surprise that knowledge brokers often feel lost.

And yet, as Leyser has noted, investing in the people who "support connectivity" is vital if the UK is to maximise the social return on its investment in research, especially in a post-Brexit context. Take, for example, the role and reach of the parliament’s Knowledge Exchange Unit with its position at the centre of a network of more than 250 university-based knowledge exchange specialists.

These third-space professionals fulfil the role of "boundary spanners" and can efficiently and quickly facilitate links with more than 84 per cent of UK academics. It is these third-space knowledge brokers who therefore provide the docking points and connective tissue that nourishes the broader research ecosystem.

Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver’s work notes that: "You need people who have the right skills and time and in the right time/place to use opportunities. These people are currently in short supply, and - despite increasing high-level recognition that these kinds of connectors are important - there are few opportunities to build careers (academic or otherwise)."

This lack of a clear career framework leaves knowledge brokers very often feeling lost. Their role within universities is one that has developed largely through trial and error rather than careful design. As such, a multiplicity of roles has mushroomed within and across universities - varying from those focused on particular departments to those supporting institutional strategies, and from those focused specifically on policy engagement to those with a broader remit in knowledge exchange and impact.

This array of roles, along with institutional diversity, often means that clear career paths don’t exist, best practice is still emerging and roles themselves are still evolving. Brokers are often reliant on instinct, applying learning and practice from other sectors and "learning by doing".

While there are calls to build greater capacity and skills in universities and to recognise the importance of "trusted relationships" in supporting the utilisation of research, what’s missing is a clear strategy for supporting and professionalising this critical piece of the bigger research ecosystem.

The government’s consideration of the future of its UK Research and Development Roadmap and preparations for another major review of the Research Excellence Framework offer an opportunity. A relatively low-cost, high-gain part of any discussion must be to focus on nurturing the connective tissue and ensuring that the knowledge brokers no longer feel quite so lost in (the third) space.

This article originally appeared in Times Higher Education on 30 April 2021.


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