Friday, August 24, 2007

Transformative

NSF wants some (most? all?) of the research it funds to be "transformative". I don't know exactly when this word became central in NSF-speak, though I first became aware of it during an NSF committee meeting a few years ago. Those of us who recently completed an NSF questionnaire, the results of which are now out and being discussed in science/news forums, had to answer questions about how much of our own research is transformative, how much of the research in proposals we review is transformative etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of us think we are doing transformative research, but see it less often in proposals we review.

Now this word is creeping out of NSF and into proposals. I just reviewed a proposal that proclaimed the described research as transformative. Alas, using the word in a proposal does not make it so, though I suppose this raises the question of whether I would know it if I saw it. And this raises the question of just what "transformative" means, and whether it is a definite state that can be predicted from a proposal.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Makes you want to shoot a bureaucrat, doesn't it ;)

Hypatia said...

THe buzz word at NIH is translational

Mr. B. said...

Hmmm...

It does not look good. The title of Sokal's famous paper is:

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity

There is your word in the title. This paper was complete nonsense and caused quite a stir.

Googling transformative leads to a lot of other dicey hits. I am afraid that transformative is the buzzword analogous to translational on the NIH side of things.

My sympathy.

Bonzo

Schlupp said...

In MyCountry, we have 'translational', but it's special and not everything has to be so. Since MyCountry is not English speaking (most of the reserch proposals and so are done in English, though), they were nice enough to explain what they mean.

Is 'transformative' something similar?

Anonymous said...

see, I understand translational, but what does transformative mean? I understand the advantages of research being translational (although buzzwords make me roll my eyes), but what is the benefit of research being transformative? Some research questsions don't need a transformation, just steady, solid work. Or does it mean something that has nothing to do with the root of the word?

Anonymous said...

ok, I found a definitiion: (I'm bright that way)

"Transformative research is defined as research driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or lead to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science or engineering."

I don't understand seeking novelty for the sake of novelty. I understand that ideas that involve a aparadigm shift may be generally not well received and it is nice that they get a boost, or at least a second look. But I don't understand why "radically changing our understanding" is a necessarily any better than something that merely deepens it or extends it.

A said...

Ah perfect! Now that you've let the cat out of the bag I can freely expect funding for my transformative research which will create novel synergies among distinct sub-fields and thus facilitate further interdisciplinary work.

Makes me want to carve my own heart out with a spoon.

Quantum Moxie said...

A hate beaurocrats. I'm with the first anonymous poster on this one. The sad thing is that my first job out of college involved coming up with words like that to describe NASA - I worked for a company hired by NASA Aeronautics to develop mission and vision statements along with a long-range plan for that branch of the agency. Turned out to be a collosal waste of time, though I did get a free week-long trip out of it ... to St. Louis.

Doug Natelson said...

I was at an event in January where Arden Bement (the NSF director) spoke, and he used the word "transformative" ten times in the last two minutes of his talk. I kept track. I felt like I was in a flashback to my time at Westinghouse's Science and Technology Center as a summer intern, where management used to talk about Total Quality and Generating Synergy. Unfortunately for the NSF, the amount of truly transformative research (e.g., inventing PCR, the laser, the transistor) is a pretty tiny fraction of the whole, and that's unlikely to change even if we relabel all of our own work as transformative.

liketothelark said...

Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan have written a book "Money Drunk, Money Sober" and outline different types of people who have problems with money. e.g. the Cash Co-Dependent whose debt comes from their spouse, a Poverty Addict who is incapable of spending on themselves.

Why is this relevant? Well, there's also the "Big Deal Chaser". All their money problems will be solved with the big deal comes through (or they win the lottery!) They are waiting for the Transformative experience.

The truth is that, financial health comes not through one big leap but through lots of small disciplines and advances. Yes, you may get lucky, invest in whatever tech stock comes along and get out before the bubble bursts, and it's worth taking a risk now and then. But the main route to financial freedom comes in small increments. Building a wall brick by brick.

It sounds like the NSA Transformative approach is aimed at funding the big deal chasers.

Not such a problem if they also fund the slow and steady, incremental stuff. But silly as a sole strategy.

Think of Japan - its post-war economic growth was built on taking others' ideas and making a series of incremental changes to produce things just a bit better.

I suspect that usually the great leaps of ideas come from close attention to something else - they are a byproduct and not something you can force.

Thanks for the blog - keep them coming!

Anonymous said...

You assume this word is your enemy. Make it your friend. You must (as necessary) label everything you want from science and your career as "transformative". If someone gives you reasons to define it as not, then you should argue that those reasons are evidence that it is! Since a buzz word is by nature is both ill defined and fleeting, be prepared to do the same with the next one.

Anonymous said...

Could this be the death knell for the use of "impact" as a verb?

Crossing my fingers...

Hugh said...

I'd be satisfied if people would quit referring to a lectern as a "podium". But the lure of self-aggrandizement through costuming meaning in inappropriate words appears to be immortal.