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Policy is political; our ideas about knowledge translation must be too
  1. Sarah Morgan-Trimmer
  1. Correspondence to Sarah Morgan-Trimmer, DECIPHer, Cardiff University, 1-3 Museum Place, Cardiff CF10 3BD, UK; morgan-trimmersa{at}

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This article argues that in public health research, standard approaches to knowledge translation are based on (1) an invalid model of the relationship between research knowledge and policy and (2) an oversimplified concept of ‘knowledge’. Standard approaches tend to focus primarily on communicating research knowledge to policy makers in order to increase the impact of research on policy making.1 ,2 However, the process of policy making is complex and political (in the broad sense); it is not a neutral or technical exercise that simply requires greater use of scientific evidence to improve decision making. Neither is research knowledge neutral or wholly technical; it is produced in social contexts and also operates in societies in uneven ways. There is significant socio-political literature which has analysed the relationship between knowledge and policy, including how they are embedded in social and political contexts, but this is rarely drawn on in public health research.3–6 Knowledge translation in public health is a challenging area which could be informed by this literature; key ideas are briefly outlined here.

The role of knowledge in policy making

Several well-established models describe the role that research knowledge plays in the policy making process. This list is a selection of models based on several identified by Smith:6

  1. Technocratic, instrumental: knowledge is passed from researchers to policy makers and is facilitated by good connections between them. This is closely related to the ‘rational’ or ‘stagist’ model of policy making which describes a linear process from defining a policy problem to collecting information (including research evidence), deliberation and then implementing a course of action. Knowledge translation in public health often implicitly assumes the technocratic and rational models rather simplistically but empirical research indicates they have poor validity. …

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