Rugby players' legs

Is knowledge exchange too much of a contact sport?

It was Richard Miller, from Innovate UK, who recently suggested that in the built environment sector, knowledge exchange is often a body contact sport which is too slow a means of sharing knowledge. Having sat on both sides of the fence, industry and academia, I find myself reflecting that possibly, for the first time in my life, I’m good at sport! However, Richard is right, we currently have an overreliance on self-motivated individuals to repackage or, as some might say, translate, research findings and disseminate them.

The Edge, a campaigning built-environment think tank, recently held, coincidentally my first day in post as Knowledge Exchange Manager of the ARCC network, a debate titled “Is it a problem that practice and research do not connect?” The scene was set in the suggested pre-reading of an opinion article in the CIBSE journal by Paddy Conaghan (FCIBSE). If you’re a frustrated academic, well worth a read, it will give you a boost; your research is valued and is needed by industry.

Paddy writes following on from his experience as part of the built environment Research Excellence Framework panel where he had the dubious pleasure of reading over 300 papers and 100 other academic submissions. He found papers that covered “urgently-needed knowledge” by industry, referring to a group, “that dealt with the effects on city dwellers of inappropriate building forms, urban heat islands, and climate change – and that predicted increasing levels of heat stress and related deaths”, perhaps papers from some of the projects in the ARCC network. By the way, for those interested in building overheating and indoor air quality, take a look at recently published special issue, jointly commissioned with CIBSE. So, we need to stop short of patting ourselves on the back. As researchers, we might well be producing highly relevant and useful findings but they are only useful if they break out of the ivory tower and the people that hold the ability to effect change in practice are actually aware of them.

However, the participants of the Edge debate did not lay the disconnection failure purely at the door of academia. Yes, there was debate about the role and influence of the REF, particularly with regard to optimisation of research (see a great article in The Conversation). Yet, there was also a strong argument from both the speakers and from audience members that professional bodies could do more to help practitioners engage with development of research and translation of it to practice. Furthermore, it was apparent from the questions being asked that a number of practitioners felt they had little ability to direct the focus of research. There was certainly a desire voiced to hear the cutting edge of built environment research.

The debate tackled briefly the distinction of the built environment sector from others, including the automobile and medical industries: namely, that there is very little industry-commissioned research, and very little value placed on research at governance-level across the sector. The term ‘research’ in itself was an area of debate – the recent RIBA publication on How architects use research was raised as a discussion point, as was an article earlier this year, in which Pamela Buxton addressed the issue of what constitutes research, that there is a distinction “between CPD, service for a client, and genuine research”.

Finally, and for me personally, the most interesting insight from the event was the discussion, led from the floor, which identified that the very way the industry is structured through contracting, approach to risk and the dominance of market logic prevents it from becoming a learning industry.

The Edge debate revealed not just a number of challenges  but also an industry appetite, certainly from an individual practitioner level, to improve knowledge exchange between research and practice. So, what can be done? It is apparent that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has enabled, through its continued funding of the ARCC network and posts like mine, a vehicle to help address both the ability of practitioners to be involved in identifying (and being a part of) future research, and for the translation of research to practice. The ARCC network now incorporates any research council-funded built environment and infrastructure projects, and it is my job to help get published and underway research out to the key communicators in industry. We also have a track record in successfully bringing together academics and stakeholders to identify and set in motion research agendas at the frontiers of practice.

We’re open for business, sleeves rolled up hoping we can facilitate more of a Mexican wave effect than a few star rugby players. Do your bit and share this blog amongst your network.

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