What is translational research?

Today, we’re talking with Elaine Wethington, associate professor in the Departments of Human Development and Sociology at Cornell. Wethington is a medical sociologist and an expert in the areas of stress and social support systems. She’s also one of the nation’s leading experts in translational research methods.

Cornell’s College of Human Ecology is pursuing a translational research model to better link social and behavioral science research to extension and outreach, creating a more seamless link between science and service. But the question arises: What is “translational research?”

Evidence-Based Living sat down with Wethington to talk about the growing field of translational research.

To start off, what exactly is translational research?

Many definitions have been given for translational research, but the definition I like best is that it is a systematic effort to convert basic research knowledge into practical applications to enhance human health and well being. 

Translational research was designed for the medical world.  It emerged in response to concern over the long time lag between scientific discoveries and changes in treatments, practices, and health policies that incorporate the new discoveries.

What is applied research, and how does it differ?

Translational research is broader than the traditional term “applied research.”  Applied research is any research that may possibly be useful for enhancing health or well-being. It does not necessarily have to have any effort connected with it to take the research to a practical level. 

For example, an applied research study might analyze longitudinal data that tracks participants’ health and social relationships.  The researchers would report their findings in an academic journal.

But in translational research, the same study would include some “action steps.”  The researchers would partner with a community and ask for ideas about how their findings might apply there.  Together, they would come up with an intervention plan that would also include scientific evaluation of its effectiveness. 

Why are social science researchers slower to adopt these models compared to the medical community?

I think the answer to this question is that researchers have followed where the money has been allocated. The opportunities for social and behavioral scientists have not been established as rapidly.

More recently, three major government institutions have been funding projects that emphasize public health outreach using translational research – the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging.  All three have been establishing translational research centers across the country, primarily focused on underserved communities and health disparities.

Thus, social scientists are only now being encouraged to take part.  More recently economic stimulus funds dispersed the National Institute of Health funded a number of translational research projects headed by social scientists, including three funded at Cornell.  I predict that soon there will be social scientists engaged in translational research across the country, not just at funded centers.

What are the benefits of moving toward translational research?

For researchers, there is benefit to being affiliated with a center that provides seed funding for projects, methodological assistance, advice on developing proposals and experience in getting community input into research projects.

For universities, translational research centers provide a tactical advantage for attracting more funding.  Translational research centers also provide a way for universities to meet public service goals in their strategic plans.

For communities, translational research provides opportunities to make a difference in their own communities.  As part of one of the Cornell centers, we engaged public service agency directors in events where they could contribute to our research agenda.  With a stake in the research, communities feel that they are making a valued and important contribution.  We heard over and over from the community members that this was a real source of pride and accomplishment for them.

How can extension programs participate?

One way local extension programs can participate in translational research is to take part in community stakeholder groups that meet with researchers who are designing intervention and prevention research programs.  Typically, a wide variety of stakeholders need to be engaged.  County Cooperative Extension offices have many collaborative relationships in their counties and can work with researchers to make contacts.

Typically, local extension professionals do not have time to engage in research themselves.  Yet they have valuable experience that can be shared.  This makes Cooperative Extension an ideal contributor for implementing programs.

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