Message from Your President - Language and the Art of Research Administration

By Vivian Holmes posted 07-23-2014 16:54

Many years ago while traveling in Europe as an undergraduate, I attended a party with students from all over Europe. Chatting away in a large group, we each introduced ourselves including our major.  On my turn, I stated that I was majoring in English.  From beside me, a loud male voice exclaimed in disbelief, “English??!! But you SLAUGHTER the language!!”   

I had occasion to recall this incident in February at the INORMS (International Network of Research Management Societies) meeting in Washington, DC, when David Lauder, EU Project Manager from the University of York and John Donovan from the Dublin Institute of Technology and President of EARMA (European Association of Research Managers and Administrators) and I met over lunch to work on our project. Several months prior, David had identified discrepancies between the European Commission Funding language within Horizon 2020 and the US Funding language as a challenge worth pursuing.  

While we realized that it would be a daunting task to delineate all of these discrepancies, we also recognized that the endeavor would not be without a certain entertainment value.  We immediately nicknamed our project, “TomAto - TomAHto” although officially it is the “Transatlantic Funding Dictionary.”

Our institutions are increasingly engaged in international research collaborations which provide opportunities to access further talent, resources, populations and environmental conditions to help speed scientific discovery.  Global health research provides humanitarian benefits as well as economic activity and advances in worldwide health.  It is our professional responsibility to identify ways in which we as administrators can best facilitate this progress.  Of course, this begins with communication. 

Within the vernacular of research administration the differences go beyond vocabulary. There is local color, international legalese, and, like expressions that exist within families, often an institutional argot. Although our most common acronyms are carefully decoded in our funding glossaries, our use of terms such as “internal controls” and “key personnel” and “just in time” are not entirely intuitive.   Similarly, the Horizon 2020 use of words such as “beneficiaries” and “green and gold” can be equally confusing to the administrator accustomed to US NIH language.   Webster’s Dictionary is certainly no help here; this is our professional jargon, our lingua franca.

For instance, consider the commonly used “Just in Time.”  Those of us familiar with the National Institutes of Health applications and grant awards know in a second that this names a frequent task in which we provide supplemental and current information and documentation to the sponsoring agency prior to an award.  Out of the context of research administration, this commonly used phrase is defined variously as: a production strategy that strives to improve a business’ return on investment by reducing in-process inventory and associated carrying costs (Wikipedia); an inventory strategy companies employ to increase efficiency (Investopedia); a philosophy of complete elimination of waste, making only what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed (Toyota). 

Later this month, David, John and I are presenting our project at the 2014 EARMA Annual Meeting, a He Said-She Said with H2020 and NIH lingo.  With the help of a video entitled “Meet the Professor,” we will use light comedy and animation to journey through the proposal and award processes.  As moderator, David will celebrate the confusion, but in the end, we will produce the pilot tool as a first step.  We will follow up by hosting a Discussion Group at NCURA’s 56th Annual Meeting.

It is our intention to be inclusive rather than exclusive, to expand our vocabulary rather than limit it. That afternoon in Washington, DC, John Donovan taught me the meaning of “green and gold,” the European Commission’s distinction between two types of Open Access publication policies.  Apprehending the beautiful imagery of this terminology, I immediately felt more literate, more competent, and more excited about all continuing international collaborations.  It is my hope that this Transatlantic Funding Dictionary will provide you with a similar experience.