Twelve ways to kill research translation

By Lewis Atkinson

Lewis Atkinson (biography)

Want to reduce the likelihood that your research will produce policy and practice change? Here are 12 anti-rules to prevent research translation.

Anti-rule #1: ONLY FOCUS ON YOUR PART OF THE PROBLEM. Avoid seeing the problem as a whole to limit the intervention possibilities. Acknowledge the translational “gap” but be ambivalent about who owns it. Contest it with others and perpetuate confusion with a range of definitions for what research translation means.

Anti-rule #2: CLOSE OFF THE FLOW OF INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE. Keep a tight lid on who is involved and what knowledge is seen to be relevant. Do not share your data or allow access to your sources of data. Minimise the rate of data exchange within and among various research and non-research partners.

Anti-rule #3: MAINTAIN IMPERMEABLE PROFESSIONAL & INSTITUTIONAL RESEARCH BOUNDARIES. Reinforce the divisions between researchers and maintain competitive silos in the research sector driven by institutional rivalry, specialist societies and professional associations. In the name of research excellence, encourage cut-throat competition. Get groups to critique and challenge each other’s proposals, preferably in public forums, and then declare winners and losers.

Anti-rule #4: IGNORE THE CHANGING NEEDS OF THE COMMUNITIES THAT YOU SERVE. Advocate that “research translation” is something new and mysterious. That it is driven by research needs as primary inputs rather than the impact on the communities that researchers are generating findings to serve. Argue that research translation can’t be done as part of the normal scope of day-to-day practice and that it cannot be changed once it is in progress.

Anti-rule #5: AVOID ANY MEASURES OF EFFECTIVENESS OR ACCOUNTABILITY FOR TRANSLATION. Translation is someone else’s problem. Make sure that all researchers are part-time and without clear accountability and diffused responsibility for impact. Better still, practice public humiliation, making expectations for translation ambivalent and impossible to achieve. Everyone will know that risk-taking is bad.

Anti-rule #6: IGNORE THE COMPLEXITY OF MULTIPLE INTERACTING CONDITIONS. Avoid paying attention to ‘agency’ at the heart of individual and/or population behaviour, where different people and groups seek their own desired outcomes. Instead maintain that yours can be the ONLY outcome and therefore confine discussion of strategies and plans to a small circle of trusted advisors. Announce big decisions in full-blown form. This ensures that no one will start anything new because they never know what new orders will be coming down from the top.

Anti-rule #7: MAINTAIN THAT TRANSLATION IS A LINEAR PROCESS. Maintain your commitment to the unidirectional view of translation. Neglect the value added that broader thinking about the problem and intervention can bring, including the advantages of multidisciplinarity to basic science and technology development.

Anti-rule #8: BUILD YOUR IMMUNITY TO CHANGE. Protect yourself against the nuisance of change. Maintain strict hierarchy and blame problems on the incompetent people below — their weak skills and poor work ethic. Complain frequently about the low quality of the talent pool today.

Anti-rule #9: WE ALREADY KNOW EVERYTHING (WAKE). Be suspicious of any new idea from below — because it’s new, and because it’s from below. After all, if the idea were any good, we at the top would have thought of it already. Above all, never forget that we got to the top because we already know everything there is to know about this.

Anti-rule #10: FOCUS ON THE MEANS, NOT THE ENDS. Make the process of accessing funds and undertaking the research project and translation of results as difficult and complex as possible. Keep everyone very busy and skew the loading of incentives towards furthering their own personal ambitions rather than awareness of the impact of actions on others, unintended or otherwise.

Anti-rule #11: MAINTAIN A MYOPIC INTERNALLY FOCUSED VIEW. Do not scan the literature for any lessons about research translation because we are different and successful research translation can only be done based on research done by our people in our context.

Anti-rule #12: TRACK EVERYTHING THAT CAN BE TRACKED, AND ASK FOR IT AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE. Create complex structures, processes and reporting systems. Insist that all procedures be followed. Encourage researchers to find answers as soon as possible and at least cost. Favour exact plans and guarantees of success. Don’t credit people with exceeding their targets because that would just undermine planning.

Do you have other anti-rules to share? Do you have your own version of the anti-rules above?

Biography: Lewis Atkinson PhD is a global partner at the Haines Centre for Strategic Management LLC. He is a systems thinker and architect of strategic and social change built on a foundation of systems thinking. The anti-rules above are based on the 12 characteristics of traditional human dynamics and the anti-dotes can be found by using systems thinking. Several systems thinking resources can be found at:

8 thoughts on “Twelve ways to kill research translation”

  1. The twelve “sins” are well grounded in systems theory. Example, only focus on your part: systems are interconnected, close the flow: system feedback loop failure, etc. A wonderful example that a good, useful theory translates well into practice.

  2. So true and yet our systems are built to drive these competitive siloed approaches.

    The Australian Advanced Health Research Translation Centres and Centres for innovation in regional health coming together under the umbrella of the Australian Health Research Alliance creates a national platform to overcome these anti-rules.

    However we must collaborate with our policy makers and funders to create the drivers and remove the barriers to enable research translation.

    Also we need to recognise that competitor paradigms for excellence are appropriate in discovery research, yet become increasingly inappropriate as we move across the translational research continuum where clinical research needs broad stakeholder engagement, prioritisation and co-design for large scale multicentre trials. In health services and applied research large scale stakeholder engagement is essential in creating the pull of the community and health sector for research to address our problems.

    Ultimately as the community are both the funders and the beneficiary of research and of healthcare in Australia, it is beholden on the research and government sectors to increase engagement and collaboration. Our Centres and national Alliance will enable this and in turn will drive transformation through “pulling” prioritised, relevant co-designed research that will be pulled into practice and policy.

    Another rule would be to
    # Continue to engage expensive management consultancies in areas arguably well served by applied collaborative research and translation. In areas such as healthcare improvement, the fastest growing area of consultancies, the primary drivers for the consultancies are “for profit”, past evidence is often ignored, learnings are not captured and built upon in the sector as a whole and where the little existing evidence now shows no benefits (Kirkpatrick, I 2018).

    • Thanks for you comments Helena. Also thanks for deriving an additional anti-rule. I think Donella Meadows (famous systems thinker) said it best in her post – Dancing With Systems – Where she sagely expressed that; “We can’t impose our will on a system….
      We can listen to what a system tells us and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something that is much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

      I think you are highlighting how important “values” are in doing this good work. Maybe you might agree that the 14 points that Donella makes in her article at the link above could form the basis for the 14 principles for successful translation that Linda is suggesting we develop below? Thanks Lewe

  3. Hi Linda, We are so pleased that you found it useful. I have only recently discovered principles focused evaluation by Michael Quinn-Paton – see youtube link here So if you agree with Micheal that a key test for a “principle” (of success or failure) is that they can be expressed either as positive or negative behaviours. Indeed, I have derived them from the 12 characteristics of open living systems. See summary to download here – Good luck with your class. Lewe

  4. Dear Lewis,

    I loved your blog! Very clever to focus on the negative–sadly, this is what typically happens with research translation. A very intriguing exercise would be to present these “failure principles” to a class or group and ask them to come up with the converse principles–the effective way to do research translation. Much better to have people create their own “principles of success.” I think I’ll try this in my class on health interventions at UC Berkeley and will let you know how it goes.

    A few additions that come to mind:

    • Don’t co-design research and intervention programs with the end-users (somewhat related to #3 and #4). Rely on professionals for all your input on research and practice. If you have to consult the intended beneficiaries, use a “light touch” such as having a focus group to “rubber stamp” professionals’ ideas. Don’t involve them from the beginning as “equal partners.”

    • Continue using the term “research translation” in its traditional sense in which researchers do research and then, later, practitioners are expected to implement the results. This will ensure that many of the “failure principles” laid out in the blog will be adhered to. Be certain not to adopt a new concept that advocates for integrated research and implementation from the start that draws on many disciplines and involves researchers, beneficiaries and other stakeholders.

    • Under no circumstances advocate for I2S!


    Linda Neuhauser
    School of Public Health
    University of California, Berkeley


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