Announcer: From the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, this is All About Grants.
Megan Columbus: Welcome to another addition of All About Grants. I’m your host Megan Columbus in the communications division of NIH’s Office of Extramural Research. Today we’ll be discussing the importance of communicating research value in plain language in your grant application. I’d like to welcome Dr. Sally Rockey to the show today. Dr. Rockey is the Director for Extramural Research here at the National Institutes of Health. Sally can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Sally Rockey: I am a PhD entomologist from the Ohio State University, and I’ve been involved in research administration for the past 25 years, both at the US Department of Agriculture and here at NIH.
Megan: NIH has instituted a communications campaign to heighten awareness about the importance of using plain language in NIH grant applications. Sally, many people think that target audience of the grant applications are scientists that serve on review panels, and the NIH staff that make those funding decisions. But for those applications that go on to get funded, that really isn’t the entire story. So in the spirit in transparency, select parts of the awarded grant application are made public through the RePORTER database of NIH funded grants, located at projectreporter.NIH.gov. Sally, can you tell me a little bit about which fields exactly are made public?
Sally: When an application is awarded, the parts of the award that are made public are the title of the application, the abstract, and the public health relevance, along with other information about the principle investigator, where the principle investigator is from, etc.
Megan: Why is it so important that the public understand what type of research NIH is funding?
Sally: Well the public has many needs, one of which is to understand the researchâ€”that they can look at what research is currently being conducted to help them understand their particular health issues and how this research might impact their health issues. So, that’s one reason. We have a number of members of the public or pieces of the public that include beyond the public itselfâ€”Congress who is interested in knowing where the funds that they allocate to NIH are going, the advocacy groups who also want to know how the research that we fund impacts their particular disease of interest, and other groups as well. So, the taxpayer basically wants to know how their tax dollars are being spent.
Megan: When we talk about plain language, what exactly would we expect to see?
Sally: Plain language is a way to not only convey the science that you are conducting but also to convey to the value of that science in terms that the general public would understand. So I have some examples. So if we had a particular study that had a title of “The Impact of Polychlorinated Biphenyls on Aureal Hydrocarbon Receptors” there are very few people in the public that would understand that. But if you change that title to “The Impact of Toxins on Liver Repair” many people would be able to understand it. It also is very beneficial when people are searching for particular topics if they are more general and in plain language. They have a better ability to search those topics out.
Megan: As an investigator though, I can imagine as I am submitting a grant application to NIH more concern about what the reviewers are going to be thinking about that grant application. Do you have concerns that in asking people to write in a plain language that an educated lay public can understand that it might seem as though I am dumbing down that application?
Sally: So I think that all reviewers would think that an application that is succinct and clear would be easier to review, and they would find benefit from that themselves. I think the trick here is to have a balance between not being too technical with the use of jargon, scientific jargon and balancing that with finding a way to express what you are doing as far as the science and the value of the science without using colloquialisms that would in fact allow some individuals to misinterpret the value of that science. So the trick is finding that balance in between. But I do think reviewers would actually find it beneficial to have a very succinct and clear discussion of the science.
Megan: Well and what we are really talking about here is the title, the abstract, and the project narrative. There is the entire rest of the application, the entire research plan, that can be filled with the kind of information that scientists would expect to see when their reviewing a grant application.
Sally: And I want to point out that the title is the first thing that people see when they go on to our RePORTER website. So the title is probably the most critical area to have that title in layman’s terms, or in terms that would be generally understand. You also want to do that in the abstract, but you also have more space in the abstract to also get to the heart of the science. So you do have to balance that in the abstract. The public health relevanceâ€”that is a part of the application that is put on the website that is essential that you talk to this in non-jargon terms and using terms that can be understood generally.
Megan: And well NIH sometimes uses those project narratives when we need to pull out and highlight things for congress and for others.
Sally: That’s right. Public health relevance is one the areas that we look at oftentimes when we have letters that come in from the public or from congress asking us about particular areas of science. And also asking us how to justify the type of research that we fund. So we will then look at the public health relevance area and look directly to it. So if it’s put in terms that are less technical, it’s easier for all to understand.
Megan: Well, we have developed examples. I think we’ve developed three separate examples of titles, and abstracts, and project narratives in a kind of pre-plain languaged version and one that has been cleaned up to make it very clear what the bigger picture is for those grant applications. And we have those available on a website hosted by the Office of Extramural Research, and we’ll provide that Web address at the end of this podcast. Do you have another title, for example, that you might want to throw out as an example?
Sally: Well I think when we are trying to get that balance between scientific terms and colloquialisms or areas that might have sensitive terms in them. I use the example, we fund quite a bit of behavioral research, lets’ use the example of a title of a project that says “Teenage Dating Habits and How it Impacts Depression of Housewives.” The value of it may be misunderstood by the public. If you were to change that to “Impact of Early Relationships on Mental Health in Adults” that might go right to the point. And again, in the abstract you have the ability to expound on what that title means but that goes right to the heart that you are looking at early relationships and how they affect mental health later on in life.
Megan: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Sally: Well, I just say that this is, of course, most scientists do a very job of this, but we do want them to pay attention to this, with the recognition that their abstract, and title, and public health relevance are going to be on the website. The website is used more and more everyday as people become familiar with NIH and is a great resource. So we want you to be able to tell us about the value of your research and this is one way you can do that.
Megan: Thank you for joining us. For NIH and OER, I’m Megan Columbus.
Announcer: For more information on communicating research value in NIH applications and to see examples, visit the OER website at grants.nih.gov and do a keyword search for “plain language.” Again that’s G-R-A-N-T-S dot N-I-H dot gov. To search for funded projects, visit projectreporter.nih.gov. That’s P-R-O-J-E-C-T-R-E-P-O-R-T-E-R dot N-I-H dot gov.