Overcoming the Research Translation Challenge in Australia

I was interested to read the six challenges facing Australia’s medical research sector in The Conversation, outlined by outgoing CEO of the NHMRC, Professor Warwick Anderson. The challenge that was raised around research translation stuck a chord with me and I would like to share my thoughts and insights with you here.

Firstly, I would like to reiterate that knowledge translation, a system of processes underpinned by scientific research, addresses how we can get research evidence and knowledge into practice. It is widely accepted that the amount of knowledge from research is overwhelming and it needs to be easier to understand what is new, what is relevant, and how to adapt it to current practice.

This is a quote from the article by the outgoing CEO of Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, the answer is KT!

“There are thousands of new findings coming out of the worldwide medical research effort daily. How is an administrator or a practitioner able to keep up, make sense and adjust her or his practice as the evidence accumulates?”

How is it that after a ten year stint at the helm of our national health and medical research funder, the NHMRC, the outgoing CEO highlighted research translation as a challenge yet to be met? The Canadian and American health and medical funders mandated research translation as part of the application process and designated funding for research translation over 15 years ago, it is incredible that here in Australia we are still just talking about it and what a challenge it is. I am in no way saying that the Canadian and American system is in anyway perfect, but at least they have jumped in with both feet to try  and do something about it.

“We could make savings to the public and private purse if we could make better use of research”

To overcome the research translation challenge in Australia, we need to look to international shores to see what they are doing and how it’s working. Dr Melanie Barwick, from the University of Toronto, visited Australia last year and during that visit highlighted several differences between Australia and Canada with regard to translation and research funding. These differences include; the requirements within our grant applications regarding translation, a lack of funding allocated specifically to planned translation activities, no scholarly recognition for non-academic translation activities, and limited capacity to do translation.

At present, in Australia, there is no incentive to do research translation, that’s not to say that researchers don’t want to take their research further but there is usually a lack of time, a lack of money and a lack of reward for effort. Therefore, the focus remains on those activities that will be funded and for which there is the greatest rewards. Securing funding and career progression are based only on academic activities such as peer reviewed journal publications and conference presentations – both of which are incredibly important and underpin high quality research.

So how can we add some layers to the research funding mechanisms and research process to ensure we meet the translation challenge head on?

Fund Translation

The research funders are the driving force behind the way we do research. They guide the type and focus of research areas, they guide the measurable factors by which funding is awarded (i.e peer review and citations) and they decide what the money should be used for. If the NHMRC mandated a translation plan with every grant submission that included specific goals, measures of success and funding for the translation activities then we would be much closer to overcoming this challenge.

For the basic scientists amongst you, this would include some of the very things that you do now in terms of the academic translation, but could go further to include plain language summaries and greater multidisciplinary collaborations.

Build capacity for Translation

If we want research translation then we must also build and provide the capacity for it. Funding for the activities is a great start, but there would need to be help for researchers and research support staff to learn about what encompasses translation, how to plan for it and where to get the help and expertise they need. Getting research used in practice is not just about writing a report someone can read, it involves much more than that and is a system of integrated processes that starts with a plan.

Other countries have been very proactive in providing training and resources to both guide, facilitate, teach and actually do the translation of the research.

Reward Translation

Perhaps the most important of all three layers is that of measuring and reward translation efforts. These measures should be considered along with traditional academic outputs during the grant application process. They should also be part of the recognition and reward process when going for promotions within universities and research institutes.

“We get more benefits than you might know from medical research – and we should get even more, and faster.”

I couldn’t agree more with this quote and I strongly believe that change will come. This belief is what drives the programs, training and support that Knowledge Translation Australia provides to researchers and research users across the nation.

What are your thoughts? Would you like to learn more about translation?