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Say again? NSF massages grant titles with eye on critics in Congress

Embarrassed by a relative handful of research grants that legislators have mocked in part because of their titles, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, promised Congress in 2014 that it would do a better job of describing the projects it funds. Since then, NSF program officers have been paying more attention to the titles that researchers submit with their grant proposals. And that additional scrutiny is paying off.

Projects funded in 2015 are more than twice as likely to sport new titles as those funded in 2012, according to a new analysis by an internal NSF working group. The changes have also made the research easier to understand, says NSF’s James Hamos, who is heading up the project.

NSF started by looking at the thousands of research grants it made in fiscal year 2012. By the time a proposal has been funded, some 10% bore titles that were substantively different than what the scientist had submitted with his or her proposal. (Roughly one in five proposals is funded.) The agency’s metric was a change of more than 10 characters in the title. When it did the same analysis of grants awarded in 2015, the tally of altered titles jumped to 24%.

Hamos, a senior adviser to NSF Director France Córdova, views the 2012 percentage as a baseline and argues that the 2015 number demonstrates progress. “We think the ship is turning in the right direction,” he says. “We said we were going to do this, and the program officers have responded.”

How does NSF know that the new titles are easier to understand? It asked a half-dozen scientists working at NSF through a policy fellowship program managed by AAAS (which publishes Science) to rate the clarity of the titles of 200 recent grants. The fellows gave a thumbs-up to some 70% of the titles that had been changed, compared with only 47% of the grants whose titles were not changed as they moved through the NSF grantsmaking process. “We didn’t tell them which were which,” Hamos says, “and we also didn’t define clarity. But we think that difference is significant.”

NSF is also working to improve the readability of the online abstracts that describe every successful proposal. Those abstracts are generally written by program officers, who draw from a one-page summary of the proposed research submitted by each grant applicant. “For years we assumed that we were writing for the scientific community, to let them know what we have funded and to give them ideas on possibly fruitful areas of research,” Hamos says. “So the explanations were very technical.”

That also is changing, but slowly. Today’s abstracts begin with a nontechnical statement of why the research is important and useful to society, he says, before explaining the nature of the work itself. And that’s when things get dicey. “Even without using technical jargon, scientists write in very complex sentences,” Hamos admits.

Although NSF’s goal is for the titles “to be understandable by the public,” Hamos says NSF has not yet asked the public for its opinion. But it hasn’t ruled out such an exercise, either. “We have employees, administrative staff, who aren’t scientifically trained,” he says. “So it’s something that we could do.” 

NSF now plans to analyze the change in titles by discipline and directorate to learn whether certain fields are especially problematic, Hamos says. It will then share those results with its oversight body, the National Science Board, at the board’s May meeting. The real test, of course, will be whether new and clearer titles help calm the political waters.