Language of Bringing Research to Policy

Ruminations at the beginning of Day 2 of the AcademyHealth conference on Disseminating and Translating research to the policy process. The language of the enterprise matters:

  • Disseminate implies the goal is simply to deliver information and people will know what to do. This is likely to work for something like “disseminating the location of bomb shelters during an air raid” but most of what we are discussing in the health sphere is far more contested. Putting a paper in a journal and doing nothing else likely goes here.
  • Translate implies (I think) a deficiency on the part of those who need the complicated stuff to be translated for them. Perhaps this doesn’t have to be pejorative, but I worry that this frame of reference will cause researchers to make lots of noise, but to not communicate. Sometimes you may literally translate a document into another language, but I am not sure this framing helps us researchers have the most impact that we might.
  • Communicate implies both the delivery and receipt of information (you might phrase this active listening). Researchers seek to communicate what has been found, why they think that it is important, and what they think should be done about it (how policy should be changed). Communication requires not only the providers of the information, but those who receive and process it as well, and there will be feedback in a true communication. Feedback implies some sort of relationship or linkage over time.

Communication is the proper goal for researchers, I think. This may seem fundamental, but this meeting has helped to crystallize this for me. However, be warned; if you manage to put your research into an actual policy making situation, good policy makers will provide feedback that continually identifies new questions. A real communication will almost certainly end with the “expert” being asked a question(s) to which they don’t know the answer(s). The radical answer is to say “I don’t know; but we could find out with the appropriate research.”

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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