Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Science as Translational Science: A History of the Discipline

Academic journal article Family Relations

Family Science as Translational Science: A History of the Discipline

Article excerpt

Family science has a long history of being a translational science. In this article, we begin by providing a definition of translational science. We then provide a history of family science in which we draw connections with the translational identity that has long been at the core of the discipline, drawing attention to the thread of translational work throughout each period of the discipline's development.


Phrases such as mission-oriented research, directed research, use-inspired basic research, and strategic research have long been used to describe scholarship that attempts to link discovery with practice or utility (Lander & Atkinson-Grosjean, 2011, p. 538). Beginning in the 1990s, phrases such as translational science, translational research, and translational medicine were adopted as the practice of linking fundamental discoveries with application utility became increasingly popular, both in health sciences and nonmedical fields (for an example of teen drug resistance strategies in the communications field, see Hecht & Miller-Day, 2007; for application in social work, see Palinkas & Soydan, 2012).

Translational research links "scientific findings with programs and policies that improve human health and well-being" (Wethington, Herman, & Pillemer, 2012, p. 4). In other words, the end goal is to translate scientific research discoveries into meaningful applications that make a difference in people's lives (Lander & Atkinson-Grosjean, 2011). However, there is a "dynamic and recursive nature" to translational science as "questions and hypotheses are constantly reformulated to align with knowledge gained in the processes of translation" (Lander & Atkinson-Grosjean, p. 538). Translational research in the social and behavioral sciences is "iterative rather than linear" (Lemon et al., 2013, p. 491). Research agendas are shaped by those who will ultimately benefit from the application of these scientific discoveries (Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, 2007).

Although the concept of translational science was evident in medical journals since the 1970s, it was initially only applied to biomedical research, given the incentive to translate research findings into practices and policies that would prevent and treat diseases (Wethington et al., 2012). In other words, when scientists discover new research knowledge and medical treatments, they need to deliver them to the patients or populations for whom they are intended (Woolf, 2008). Wethington et al. (2012) argued that the definition of translational science has more recently expanded to include research in the social and behavioral sciences. There is a push to see that research actually makes a positive contribution to people's lives and that it does so in a timely manner. Family science maintains the same desire for movement from basic to applied science, as is demonstrated in this special issue. To effectively conduct translational research, family scientists need to be aware of community needs and practitioners need to employ evidence-based prevention and intervention programs (Wandersmann & Lesesne, 2012). This interface between basic discovery research informing applied science and applied science informing basic research is a distinct strength of family science and is evident throughout its history.


Family science is a relatively young discipline compared with other social sciences such as psychology, social work, and sociology. The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) Task Force (1988) described the discipline's development in three stages: the discovery stage, the pioneering stage, and the maturing stage. More recently, we suggested that the discipline has moved into a stage of evaluation and innovation (Hamon & Smith, 2014). What is apparent from reviewing each phase in the maturation of family science is the way in which scholarship and practice have been intertwined. …

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