The 3 biggest misconceptions about knowledge translation

There are many views and understandings of knowledge translation (KT), in fact within a room full of people it can be unlikely that two people will use the same definition. Despite this, I am still constantly surprised at the different views about knowledge translation, what it is, what it is not, and who it is relevant to. Disturbingly, some of these observations are from speaking with research funders, and other research professionals that I assumed would have a broader understanding and awareness of translation. From these experiences, I have discovered three common misconceptions about translation, and I would like to address each of these to increase learning and perhaps spark some debate.

1.  Translation is just “push” and happens after the research

A big misunderstanding of KT is that it is what we do with our research at the end of the research grant, it can be thought of as a unidirectional activity. This thinking equates to “how do we push our information out to the world?”, and usually results in media releases, social media announcements, written reports and so on. It is often confused with science communication, one of the many skills that are valuable within the translation process.

KT is much more than this. It is a system of processes that begin well before the research has started. KT is about starting with the end in mind, which requires stakeholder discussions and engagement to determine the relevance of the research and how useful it will be to the end user. KT encompasses activities of stakeholder management, effective dissemination, contextualisation and synthesis, implementation and uptake, and research impact and measurement. It involves, multiple players, multiple disciplines and expertise, and perhaps most importantly it is impact oriented. KT is more than a mere “push” effort.

2. Translation is commercialisation

Often when I tell people that I work in knowledge translation, the response is “oh you do commercialisation”! Commercialisation sits within the system of knowledge translation as an implementation process or activity. Aside from encompassing a broader system of activities, translation covers many types of outcomes that include policy changes, practice changes, social innovation, and commercial innovation.

Social innovation is the poor cousin to commercial innovation, particularly in this era of becoming more innovative and the focus of governments around the world to create more commercial products and entities from research endeavours. Social innovation from KT has the disadvantage of being difficult to measure, and it can take much longer to see the tangible benefits, particularly from an economic perspective. However, social innovations have the power to change organisational efficiencies, create jobs and alter the culture of industry, all of which have long-term economic impacts. Commercial innovations may work initially, and provide a measurable outcome, but can become quickly superseded by another product or solution. KT is broader than just commercialisation.

3. Translation doesn’t apply to basic scientists

Amongst researchers, the basic scientists, those working in the lab and doing discovery research, are the ones least likely to have an interest or see the relevance of KT. Interestingly, philanthropists that fund this type of research feel very differently. Knowing your goal and articulating your bigger vision and purpose for the research endeavour are all part of KT, as are communicating in a language that non-academics can understand. Admittedly, basic scientists will dip in and out of the KT system in a different way, at different times, and with different reasons across the research process. It is helpful for basic scientists to understand the KT system so that they can work out how best they can translate their science in a way that is helpful. 

Impacts from basic science will take different forms than other science fields. These include things like; the development of new methods and testing procedures that will enhance and further research and increase testing efficiencies; capacity building through training and development of students and other staff; and an understanding of scientific principals shared through public or student education programs. These are all vital to our future research endeavours and must be communicated and disseminated to the public that fund the science.

Would you agree with these observations to the misconceptions?

Next time your talking to someone about KT, try to think about it the broader activities and processes that make up the KT system. Share this with others and help overcome the misconceptions so that we can all create greater impact from research.

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