Let’s banish the term “Knowledge Translation”

Jeffrey Crelinsten
September 16, 2019

The term “knowledge translation,” or “KT”, is now in common usage among academics and policy makers keen to see social and economic benefits emerge from university research. KT is academia’s answer to the increasing pressure from governments and civil society for a return on public investments in academic research.

The rise in usage of this term is unfortunate. We must banish it from the policy conversation and replace it with another one that more accurately reflects the true nature of innovation. Here’s why.

“Knowledge translation” implies a one-way transfer of knowledge from academia to the outside world. Academia is seen as the source of new knowledge, which is then translated for non-academic “knowledge users”, such as companies, hospitals, communities and other entities concerned with social and economic development.

The reality is that innovation is a two-way street in which suppliers and customers/users co-create solutions. The KT paradigm assumes that only the academics are the “knowledge creators”. In fact, the people working in companies, hospitals and community organizations are from the same tribe as the academics – most of them have degrees! The process of finding solutions involves all parties working together.

Another flaw in the KT concept is that it implies that the academics have no responsibility in applying the knowledge that is created (actually, co-created). The academic has done his or her job and it’s now up to the company, hospital or other non-academic stakeholder to apply the knowledge to some social or economic challenge. Well, innovation doesn’t work that way. The “build it and they will come” mentality has been the death knell for many a researcher/entrepreneur, company, not-for-profit and charitable institution.

The KT attitude smacks of arrogance (only we can create knowledge) and indifference (we’re not responsible for solutions to societal or economic challenges; that’s not our job, it’s yours).

So, what’s a better term to use? My suggestion is that we banish “knowledge translation” in favour of “value exchange.” After all, innovation is about creating value. All parties bring something to the table – academia, the private sector, the non-profit and charitable sectors,  and government. Let’s lose the defensiveness around research funding and just work together to create value for the world.


Jeffrey Crelinsten is CEO of The Impact Group, a consultancy based in Toronto, and Publisher of RE$EARCH MONEY

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