Confessions of a NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellow

by Dr Lesley Wye
Senior Research Fellow
Centre for Academic Primary Care

For 25 years, I have been a frustrated researcher. Like many, I came into the field of research to make a difference. But as the years passed, I realised that research had little influence on healthcare policy making or practice. I wanted to do something, so in 2009 I applied for a NIHR post-doctoral fellowship to skill up research teams to make a bigger impact. The feedback on my (unsuccessful) application was that researchers just had to publish in the BMJ and things would change (if only!).

Imagine my delight when a few short years later, the NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellowship scheme was launched. Its aim was to create a “cadre of knowledge mobilisers”, proficient both in the practice and research of knowledge mobilisation (or ways of sharing knowledge). In 2014, I became one of them.

Although the fellows and fellowships are hugely diverse, the key to a successful application is advancing the field of knowledge mobilisation. Just wanting to make a difference without any idea of how or wanting to disseminate your pet project is not enough.

Currently, there are 17 Knowledge Mobilisation Research Fellows (KMRFs) with projects ranging from using theatre and design engineering to creating ‘circles of learning’ and new software tools (see www.nihr.ac.uk/our-faculty/trainees/meet-some-of-our-trainees/meet-the-kmr-fellows/). Personally, I set up the Bristol Knowledge Mobilisation Team with healthcare commissioners and researchers-in-residence embedded into Clinical Commissioning Groups and academic primary care. I then evaluated the impact (see www.bristol.ac.uk/primaryhealthcare/km).

The best thing about being a KMRF is that I’m at the cutting edge of an area of growing national and international importance. After all, how can we as researchers continue to justify the £8 billion spent annually on research in the UK when research has so little influence? I’ve also relished the opportunity to try out creative ways of working with people on my team, within the university and local commissioning organisations. And I’ve really enjoyed the learning sets with other KMRFs that take place three times a year. (NB to all applicants – cost this into your application!)

But it’s really, really hard work. Surprisingly, the hard part was not engaging commissioners, but rather finding areas of common ground between researchers and commissioners (often the researchers were not interested), keeping projects on track, and managing the workload from multiple masters with rising expectations, as the KM team became more successful. Designing and conducting a high quality research study is tough; but successful knowledge mobilisation is even tougher.

So after three years, I’m still frustrated. But at least I’m clearer about what the ‘problem’ is and have a better idea of how to solve it. I’ve learnt a lot including:

  1. Conversations between researchers and commissioners are crucial to influencing decision-making. An embedded knowledge mobilisation team can help make these conversations happen.
  2. If collaboration with commissioners, patients, frontline practitioners, healthcare managers and other non-academics were as crucial to promotion and academic survival as papers and grant funding, then researchers would make more effort. Despite the REF impact agenda, universities themselves create institutional barriers to knowledge sharing.
  3. Currently, we researchers just aren’t producing the right stuff. In fact, we often produce the same stuff at the wrong time. Commissioners need local knowledge produced speedily, for example from formative evaluations to inform service development and developmental evaluations to see how something is working in practice. Evaluations, rather than research, can be more helpful.
  4. If researchers genuinely want to make a useful contribution, then we need to talk to commissioners to find the right topics and design studies so that commissioners’ needs are actually met.

In July 2017, the next call for KMRFs will be launched. I would encourage primary care researchers to apply. We are lagging behind social scientists, as the ESRC have made significant progress in this area. In the meantime, as my own fellowship draws to a close, I plan to do a ‘roadshow’ with primary care research departments across the country. If you think you’d like to learn more about how primary care researchers can make a difference, please get in touch (lesley.wye@bristol.ac.uk).


This blog post was originally published on the NIHR School for Primary Care Research blog.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): improving the health and wealth of the nation through research.

Established by the Department of Health, the NIHR:

  • funds high quality research to improve health
  • trains and supports health researchers
  • provides world-class research facilities
  • works with the life sciences industry and charities to benefit all
  • involves patients and the public at every step

For further information, visit the NIHR website www.nihr.ac.uk.

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