Friday, October 3, 2014

Titles for grants: Something new to think about

As I’ve been reading about the attack on certain NSF grants by a particular congressional republican, I’ve concluded that there’s something really important that a grant title should convey.  It should communicate why this work is important.  What is the value in doing this set of experiments?  The grants that are being attacked totally failed to do this.  If your title doesn’t provide any inkling about why anyone should care about the work, then you have failed as a title writer or your project is bad.  I don’t doubt that there is merit to each of these proposals when you dig deep into the proposal, which is what the study section reviewers would have done.  But, the actual proposals are the intellectual property of the authors and none of us have access to them.  So we’re left scratching our heads.  Careful crafting of your title is not only important to make the grant reviewers excited about your work, but these titles are sometimes the only information available on online databases that can be accessed by congressmen, tax-paying Americans, and also your scientific peers.  Why would you want to make the underlying purpose of your work indecipherable? 

I’m not saying you always have to blatantly spell out why your work is important.  For example, any title with virus, cancer, or heart disease is going to automatically be considered to have some inherent importance by the general reader who is likely afraid of each of those things.  On the other hand, if you are studying dairy farming in China and applying for a US grant (this is a real example from the article linked above) then you should have a justification in your title.   Full disclosure, I have no idea what this grant was actually about but I’m imagining something like the following titles working a little better – “Regulating dairy farming in China: Implications for international trade practices” or “Regulating dairy farming in China: Decreasing food born illness” or “Regulating dairy farming in China: A model for best farming practices.” Any one of those titles would have been quickly brushed past with no problems by the congressman and his staff. 

The more I think about it, the more it makes me angry that the authors of these grants didn’t give any thought to conveying the meaning of their work in their titles, when it is so NOT obvious (even to me, a scientist who is giving them the benefit of the doubt).  So this is just one more thing to think about when writing your grants.  Don’t be the one who is providing fuel for the republican anti-science crazies!    

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