Stephanie Robert: Reflections on UW-Madison’s Knowledge Exchange Program

Stephanie Robert is Director of the School of Social Work at UW-Madison and was a site director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar program at UW-Madison for the life of the program. Here she reflects on knowledge exchange projects through the years.

What kind of reception did this knowledge exchange program get from outside the UW-Madison program?

The RWJ Foundation likes more applied projects, projects that are more relevant, so they were really psyched that our site integrated a knowledge exchange component into our training. UW-Madison is usually very supportive of scientists developing competence in knowledge exchange. The Wisconsin Idea states that the walls of the university are the walls of the state, which implies using science for good. But some of my colleagues in population health outside of UW-Madison, who I very much respect, are a little stodgy on this issue. A little like “We’re scientists. It’s all about the science. We’re not advocates.” I don’t think it waters down the science, for people to understand how to do knowledge exchange—to figure out how to get the science understood and used. I was a little disappointed that some of my other national colleagues are a little behind the times on recognizing the importance of training scientists to do or at least understand knowledge exchange.

I’ve started believing that Thomas Kuhn was right—that sometimes the old folks have to die out and the new folks have to replace them in order to have new paradigms.

I’ve started believing that Thomas Kuhn was right—that sometimes the old folks have to die out and the new folks have to replace them in order to have new paradigms. It’s hard to change people’s ideas. So I think it will be the next generation of scholars who are a little more open, and over time these ideas will grab hold more, but slowly.

What are the pros and cons of doing these projects during the postdoc period?

In the graduate school years, you have to commit time to becoming a good scientist. I think it would be good to expose graduate students to faculty who are engaged in knowledge exchange relationships, but to really encourage them to forge new knowledge exchange relationships might not be the right thing to focus on. If you take a scaffolding model of training, it makes sense to expose graduate students to these basic ideas that get them to think about how their science gets used, showing them that they can engage with policymakers and practitioners around these issues. I think it can only make the science better and lead the way for them to do this work later.

The postdoc phase is a good time for scholars to experiment with knowledge exchange themselves, independently, because there is flexibility. The downside is it is time consuming. It is one more thing to do. Anything we ask people to do is one more thing, and time is finite. So finding that balance can be difficult sometimes.

For example, Jayanti Owens started engaging in a knowledge exchange relationship with the Madison Metropolitan school system. That started off well, and it looked like there might be an interesting research project, but it sounded like it was getting big quickly and like it was going to be really time consuming, and she had a lot of other things on her plate. So in the end, we left it up to her to decide but recommended maybe it was not the time to follow through on that particular project. I think she’s glad she didn’t follow through, but at the same time, it helped her understand how you forge these relationships. When she ends up at Brown University, if she wants to do this sort of thing in the future, she already knows what some of the hurdles are, what some of the processes are, and how that works. And I think she’ll be a lot more comfortable initiating knowledge exchange relationships in the future because she had kind of a dry run.

How did you measure success? What was a successful project?

If a scholar seems to have grown by whatever it is they’re trying, that they’ve been exposed to some new ideas, that they seem to be talking about their topic or whatever they’re doing for their knowledge exchange project in new ways… if it seems like they’ve learned something new, I consider that a success.

If a scholar seems to have grown by whatever it is they’re trying, that they’ve been exposed to some new ideas, that they seem to be talking about their topic or whatever they’re doing for their knowledge exchange project in new ways… if it seems like they’ve learned something new, I consider that a success. I consider it a particular success if they feel good about having pushed themselves outside their comfort zone and say that this is going to make it easier for them to do it again in the future. It makes me hopeful that they will, and that they won’t perpetuate the stereotype that scientists shouldn’t engage in knowledge exchange. Because even just that—mentoring new folks and not saying to them “We don’t do that. Don’t spend any time thinking about that”—just being more open to what our mentees can do to help the field more quickly be open to knowledge exchange relationships is important.

Did the way the program evolved match what you expected at the beginning?

I ended up being surprised by how excited scholars were to even just learn some of the basics. I was a little surprised at how little people knew in general about translating knowledge into policy and practice. It didn’t take much to get them to the next level in thinking about these things.

I guess I was not surprised, but happy, that some of the scholars went deep with it, like Lindsey Leininger and Sheryl Magzamen. Some of those folks really took it more deeply, and their work now reflects that.

I’m actually most proud of our scholars who had no interest and were terrified of the idea, but who nevertheless put themselves out there to meet some folks outside of academia. For example, our current scholar Christy Erving is a straight sociologist, and has never had any exposure to knowledge exchange. Most sociology faculty never do any of this and don’t teach their mentees how to do this, so she was really quite nervous about it. But she’s been having a good time. She just had a meeting this past week with somebody at the state government and is feeling really good about it. I think one of the things she realized is that just as she’s fearful of them, and is scared to go talk, they’re actually fearful of academics. They’re like, “Oh, who are these people? What are they going to be like?” Just realizing that relationships can be built is an important lesson.

If you can train scholars to understand how the science is used, if you can expose them to the users of science, they may ask different questions.

That excites me the most and makes me a believer that this is something we should be doing more in our training of scientists. It’s not about training everybody to be advocates. It’s not about watering down the science. But if you can train scholars to understand how the science is used, if you can expose them to the users of science, they may ask different questions. It’s not like we think everyone should ask an applied question—of course basic science is important as well—but there are some people who could do both. They could ask basic science questions in their research and they could also have some research that was inspired by finding out what policymakers want to know, or what practitioners want to know, and then using their talents to answer those questions. I am more and more convinced that we need to go down that line. If scientists can’t communicate better about science, who is going to?