Building a better bridge: The role of research mediators

By Jessica Shaw

Jessica Shaw (biography) (Photograph by Chris Soldt)

What, and who, are research mediators? And are they the key to linking research with policy and practice?

There has long existed a gap, perhaps a chasm, between the worlds of research and of policy and practice. All too often, policymakers and practitioners do not use research evidence when making key decisions, while researchers design entire programs of research without a complete understanding of the needs of those on the ground doing the work. Because of this divide, we’re left wondering—how do we get individuals to use the most relevant research findings when making personal healthcare decisions? how do we get school officials to choose evidence-based curriculum? how do we get legislators to develop scientifically-sound policies?

This is where research mediators can come in and make a difference. Research mediators connect the worlds of research, and policy and practice by facilitating an ongoing exchange of information. Though, research mediators do much more than just move information and research evidence from one context to the other; they act upon the information in specific ways and create spaces to support its use.

Research mediators may:

  • summarize and interpret research finding for intended users
  • identify and explain policy and practice implications of a body of research
  • broker meetings and networking opportunities among scientists, practitioners, and decision-makers to foster bidirectional engagement.

Many different entities act as research mediators, including:

  • funders
  • educators
  • think tanks
  • foundations.

Though this role is not limited to whole organizations; individuals too can take on research mediation by stimulating and supporting knowledge exchange across the divide. Research mediators, both individuals and organizations, through a wide range of specific activities, act as a bridge, ultimately supporting the development and use of empirically-informed strategies and resources that are responsive to real-world concerns.

Though research mediators have been found to be an effective bridge, the stubborn persistence of the science-practice gap over the decades and across disciplines reminds us that there is more work to be done.

Research mediators’ reaction to this is likely to look outward—to develop additional strategies to support individuals’ use of research in their personal healthcare decisions, school officials’ selection of evidence-based curriculum, legislators’ development of scientifically-sound policy.

However, efforts to bridge the gap between science and practice may benefit most from inward-looking processes. That is, by always looking outward, research mediators may miss ways in which their own internal practices could be improved, thus increasing their overall ability to effect change. To build a better bridge, research mediators must look inward.

Looking inward to improve research mediation

  1. Identifying and using the most relevant and up-to-date research on all aspects of the science-practice gap

As a research mediator develops depth and expertise in a specific area, it is generally at the expense of other areas. For example, if a research mediator organization dedicates the vast majority of its staff time and resources to developing extensive expertise in adolescent health, staff likely are not well-versed in the emerging literature on team science. No matter how great the research mediator’s expertise in what works to improve adolescents’ health, its ability to facilitate empirically-informed practice in the real world via effective team composition and execution will likely be limited.

Research mediators must dedicate time and resources to developing a shared understanding of science-practice gaps that exist within their practice. Logic models and theories of change provide one set of tools to do this.

  1. Balancing depth and breadth of expertise

Often the science-practice gaps identified will be in areas outside of the research mediator’s expertise. It is therefore necessary that research mediators find a balance between continuing to develop depth in their area of expertise (eg., adolescent health) while also developing breadth across a wider array of disciplines (eg., team science). Greater breadth will enable research mediators to draw upon the most relevant empirical, theoretical, and methodological knowledge to inform existing and emerging activities.

Research mediators must commit to interdisciplinarity as a means for strategy development. Research mediators should first define their goals and objectives, then explore a wide range of disciplines for relevant research, theory, and methods to guide action.

  1. Institutionalizing a culture of internal practice improvement

Having identified internal science-practice gaps and having developed strategies to bridge them, research mediators must find ways to institutionalize such efforts so that they become part of the research mediator’s way of being. Indeed, if research mediator organizations are committed to effective interdisciplinary science-based internal practices, they should make one or more identified individuals responsible for it. Such individuals should understand the interdisciplinary science approach and the importance of knowledge transfer between disciplines in responding to complex challenges. They should have a pulse on new and emerging science across many areas of expertise and be an excellent communicator.

Research mediator organizations should create, fund, and fill positions for individuals focused on supporting interdisciplinary science-based practice. The Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist (Hendren and Ku, 2019) is an emerging model for this role within organizations and research teams.


Research mediators are a bridge between the worlds of science, practice, and policy, but the bridge must be stronger, wider, and receive ongoing maintenance, some of which requires real investment. Have you taken on research mediation? How did you balance looking inward with looking outward? How else might research mediators better mediate?

To find out more:
Shaw, J. (2016). How can research mediators better mediate?: The importance of inward-looking processes. Evidence and Policy. Online (DOI): 10.1332/174426416X14788873367067

Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until March 7, 2017.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:

Reference (added to replace non-functioning link in December 2021):
Hendren C. O. and Ku S. T. (2019) The Interdisciplinary Executive Scientist: Connecting Scientific Ideas, Resources and People in Hall K. L., Vogel A. L. and Croyle, R.T. (editors) Strategies for Team Science Success. Handbook of Evidence-Based Principles for Cross-Disciplinary Science and Practical Lessons Learned from Health Researchers. Springer, 363-373.

Biography: Jessica Shaw, PhD., is an Assistant Professor in the Boston College School of Social Work. She is trained as a community psychologist and relies on research-practitioner partnerships for the majority of her research. Insights provided here are based on Jessica’s experiences as a visiting fellow in one United States federal research agency.

9 thoughts on “Building a better bridge: The role of research mediators”

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, as knowledge intermediaries we need to take the lead in developing and delivering training and resources to support knowledge mobilization that it effective, feasible and meaningful. Rigorous evaluation of effectiveness with both widespread and targeted dissemination of the findings are imperative in order to move the field forward.

    • Hi Alison. I’d be interested to hear more about how you define a knowledge intermediary. Are these individuals or organizations that are committed to supporting knowledge mobilization across a wide range of substantive areas? Or individuals and organizations that specialize in a specific content area and hope to support the use of research evidence in that area? I think this distinction is somewhat important as it touches on the idea of depth and breadth above. If an individual or organization specializes in a specific content area that is NOT knowledge mobilization, but they still see their role as linking the worlds of policy, practice, and research, they are likely not in the position to develop such training and resources. I’d love to hear more about who operates as the “we” in your comment as we think about how to move this forward.

  2. Vicky (above) and I have similar experiences. I have often advocated that we need to mobilize knowledge about knowledge mobilization. Knowledge intermediaries need to practice what we preach and link the evidence on evidence use to our own practices. I wrote this first advocating we don’t become knowledge hypocrites.

    Thanks for continuing the discussion with this insightful piece.

    • Thanks for your comment and linking us to your writing in this area. We spend so much time looking out and identifying challenges over there, we fail to look in and see how our processes too would benefit from deliberate attention and improvement. I think there are some realities that can make this work challenging for many–organizations are frequently spread too thin and so caught up in the day-to-day, they don’t always have the luxury to step back and think about their work in a different way. Individuals, particularly those within academic institutions in the U.S., operate within systems that do not incentivize engagement with intended users in the same way that we incentivize contributions to our peer researchers and scientists. Those of us who really have a firm commitment to supporting use of research, and not just producing research, may find we are a rarity in our larger organizations and institutions.

  3. This is a thoughtful piece full of great insights. All too often Research intermediaries (both organisations and individuals) focus on the ‘doing’ of knowledge mobilisation and not the theory/research literature and how many times have I heard that knowledge brokers need to be experts in both research and practice in their chosen field (e.g. Child health) yet not in the research on knowledge brokering? It reminds me of one of my early blog posts about the ‘vehicle’ for knowledge mobilisation and the difficulty of explaining my research (on KMb) to people. Would love to connect with Jessica for some more discussion on this topic.

    • Thanks for connecting us all to your prior post on knowledge mobilisation. Dominant paradigms that suggest if something works, folks will use it continue to live on, even with ample evidence that such simple pathways from research evidence to practice use are not supported. I think that some fields are further along in knowing the importance of actually facilitating knowledge mobilisation as compared to others, it is figuring out how to embed such value orientations and vehicles, as you describe, into organizations. I think that commitments to supporting knowledge mobilisation and research use–beyond just rhetoric–must be at the core of decision-making processes for individual researchers and organizations.

  4. Would this be a skill that should be developed in the educational process? An example might be teaching the students with an aptitude for science writing skills to more effectively communicate their insights or teach the talented young writer science or math so they may better understand the world in which they live. A more integrated approach in the education process might develop research mediators or even help researchers become their own mediator.

    • Yes – I’d say that education is key. Which is why I get my undergrads (medical students) to incorporate stakeholder engagement in their research design assignments and give them reading and material to look at to show it’s not just a ‘good idea’ or ‘common sense’ but is something that’s underpinned by research and theory.

    • Hi Dennis. Thanks for your comment. I think being able to navigate successfully between the worlds of research, policy, and practice is a skill that must be cultivated and that intentional training in our educational process is one way to do it. It would be interesting to consider when such instruction should begin and what it might look like across early education, up through post-graduate training.


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