Elina I. Mäkinen is an organizational sociologist specializing in innovation, collaboration, and teamwork in the life sciences. She received her Ph.D. at Stanford University’s organization studies doctoral program and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Social Research at the University of Tampere.
A year ago, MIT published a report titled Convergence: The Future of Health (Sharp et al. 2016). This report presented the views of world-renowned scientists and medical researchers who argued that advances in the fight of diseases like cancer and dementia call for the integration of different types of expertise. The report highlighted the mixing of, for example, biomedical knowledge, engineering skills, and expertise in the physical, computational, and mathematical sciences. Converging different forms of knowledge in an effort to create new healthcare applications and technologies would not only benefit patients, but also potentially create new jobs and improve varied societal aspects.
This kind of research approach is very similar to translational research. Translational research in the field of medicine involves moving knowledge gained from the basic sciences to its application in clinical and community settings. Translational research cannot be achieved without collaboration and integration of knowledge among different experts.
While it is widely agreed that the ability to translate scientific discoveries to clinical practice is fundamental to improving healthcare, translational research process is challenging. The development process is slow and prone to failure. One estimate has been that it can take up to 15 years of research findings to be implemented in healthcare organizations (Balas and Boren 2000). At the same time, we do not know how many efforts fail during the development process or what kind of projects are even likely to get to the implementation stage.
My research agenda is directed at developing an understanding of the whole translational research process and the challenges for collaboration that projects face at different stages. This research agenda builds on my dissertation project conducted at Stanford University. My dissertation was a longitudinal ethnographic study on a new translational research center in the field of medicine seeking to uncover the causes of premature birth.
During the three years that I studied the center, it became evident that translational research process was threatened by challenges associated with collaboration in heterogeneous teams. Developing a shared, translational research narrative among scientists and physicians from different backgrounds was difficult, because it required letting go off one’s own research process and including elements from the work of others.
In order to develop a thorough understanding of translational research, it is important to understand how different experts are able to collaborate at different stages in the development process. Throughout the translational research process, team composition will vary. Depending on the developmental stage, teams could include researchers from the life and the physical sciences, healthcare practitioners, employees from university’s technology transfer and commercialization office, stakeholders from patient organizations, or social workers. As such, translational research is even more inclusive than the previously described convergent science.
I want to know, what the issues are that hamper collaboration at different stages. For example, is the knowledge boundary between a bioinformatician and a microbiologist easier to cross than the one between a social worker and a physician? If the challenges for collaboration are not resolved, what happens to the translational research process? Does the ease or difficulty associated with crossing a particular knowledge boundary relate to what kind of healthcare implementations we end up with?
The challenge for finding answers to these questions is being able to get access to the right kind of empirical settings. I am looking for translational research projects of varied levels of maturity focused on the development of healthcare related technologies, applications, or programs. I have been able to identify some, but the search still continues. If you think you can provide help with connecting me with the right people and projects, or are otherwise interested in this research effort, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Balas, E.A. and Boren, S.A. (2000): Managing clinical knowledge for healthcare improvement. In J. Bemmel and A. T. McCray (Eds.), Yearbook of Medical Informatics, 65–70.
Sharp, P., Jacks, T. and Hockfield, S. (2016): Convergence: The Future of Health. Cambridge, MA: MIT.