Christmas Letters and Acronym Soup

It’s the time of year for writing those Chrismassy round robin letters – or rather it’s a week or two past it, but I am late as usual. I never write simply a single letter and copy it, but try to make sure it’s personalised. Friends from school, friends from university, colleagues I worked with in the US, each need rather different kinds of letters. The latter will inevitably be more familiar with the life of an academic, even if modulated by the different US culture, so remarks about the REF or the iniquities of one or other of our funder may seem parochial to them and are best avoided. But it is the school-friends who cause me the most soul-searching about how to describe a year’s worth of academic life. Of course I can write something totally bland which says nothing about what is actually going on, but these are friends who have stood the test of 40 odd years, and that would seem a bit silly.

So I struggle with trying to summarise what I’ve got up to, but if I was trying to make it brief, it could end up like the following: (For a translation of what follows see below*, in case you’re struggling yourself; you might like to score points for how many of the included acronyms you can spell out in full. Even I struggle with the details and may well have not got them all precisely correct!).

I could say that I enjoy my work as a Trustee of the NMSI but we’ve now renamed ourselves as the SMG and I’ve just had my first trip to MOSI, which the Group has recently taken over; that I have just been appointed to the ERC ScC which will mean far more foreign travel than simply my annual trip to ESPCI; that the REF is causing me stress; that I enjoy working with SCORE and ACME through my RS Education work, but joint STEM Ministerial meetings with DfE and BIS officials aren’t always as productive as they might be when the Ministers don’t turn up; then of course there’s all the work I do with E+D and HR and I’m optimistic GEG and our new SGEN will continue to make inroads into the Cambridge culture.

Such phrases do indeed sum up much of my year, but would make absolutely no sense to anyone outside a very narrow sphere. Even my US colleagues, professors though they may be, might struggle with much of it because it’s simply UK academia and politics. We live in a world where the soup of acronyms is incomprehensible to any but the real insider. A few years back I was in the unfortunate, or at least confused position of dealing with RCUK (Research Councils UK), CRUK (Cancer Research UK) and the UKRC (UK Resource Centre for Women in SET). That three such very different organisations should have permutations of the same set of initials just seemed designed to confuse.

Every time I join a new committee or organisation a new batch of abbreviations will be thrown in my direction. You start off reeling, confused and not entirely sure what’s going on. Rarely is a glossary of the relevant terms provided but somehow, by osmosis and deduction, after a while it becomes more or less second nature – at least if you’re paying attention – and then you can start tossing those acronyms around yourself with gay abandon. I have been on committees which were so unalterably dull that I never did concentrate enough to become an expert in their shorthand, but for that I should be ashamed. But those are also the committees (naming no names) where I have remained in a permanent fog as to who half the other members are, or what their roles might be. I hope I don’t do that very often, but those groups that meet only occasionally, do not provide name badges or the ‘Toblerone’ name tags that sit on the table in front of everyone, and that have a high degree of turnover (probably particularly of the Secretariat or observers), do provide scope for extreme uncertainty over the identity of some present.

Acronyms do of course serve a useful purpose, but it probably is desirable to induct all new members in the full suite of terms they need to know and to do that sort of introduction as soon as possible to stop the fog descending. In the list above I mention the ERC (European Research Council); that I am joining their Scientific Council has only recently been publicly announced, but I have known – subject to the Commissioner’s approval – that this was on the cards for a long time. Indeed, I have in fact attended one of their meetings recently, albeit as an observer only (if you thought I was rather vague about what I was doing on top of a hill abutting the Mediterranean in a recent post, that is why; I couldn’t say I was attending an ERC Scientific Council plenary session at Erice on Sicily). That experience means I have some idea of the plethora of abbreviations and labels (B1, D2 ….that sort of thing) that are associated with the various supporting parts of the Brussels machinery. No doubt in time this will all seem totally obvious, but as yet….no, I have a lot to learn about the structures associated with that particular batch of labels, structures which are no doubt indispensable in making the whole operation run smoothly.

I look forward to getting to grips with of all of this. Perhaps even more, I am relishing the opportunity this group offers to engage with people from disciplines way beyond science. Don’t be fooled by the title of the group: ‘Scientific’ here means far more than the STEM disciplines; it implies science in its broader meaning of ‘knowledge’ and includes humanities and social science disciplines too. That will be an exciting new departure for me. The ERC plays a very substantial role in the European funding landscape and I hope the current EU-wide budget negotiations will bring a satisfactory conclusion for it so that the group has full scope to continue to fund excellent individuals, wherever they may be.

*Translation: I could say that I enjoy my work as a Trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry but we’ve now renamed ourselves as the Science Museum Group and I’ve just had my first trip to the (Manchester )Museum Of Science and Industry, which the Group has recently taken over; that I have just been appointed to the European Research Council Scientific Council which will mean far more foreign travel than simply my annual trip to the Ecole Supérieure de Physique et de Chemie Industrielles; that the Research Excellence Framework is causing me stress; that I enjoy working with Science COmmunity Representing Education and Advisory Committee for Maths Education through my Royal Society Education work, but the joint Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Ministerial meetings with the Department for Education and Business, Innovation and Skills officials aren’t always as productive as they might be when the Ministers don’t turn up; then of course there’s all the work I do with Equality +Diversity and Human Resources and I’m optimistic the Gender Equality Group and our new Senior Gender Equality Network will continue to make inroads into the Cambridge culture.

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2 Responses to Christmas Letters and Acronym Soup

  1. I think a great deal of what we all refer to as “public outreach” or “science communication” has to do with explaining acronyms. I recently gave a lecture to a forensics group and was highly pleased to be complimented later by the organizer for explaining every abbreviation as soon as I used it.

    HH and HNY to you!*

    *That would be “Happy Holidays” and “Happy New Year”, of course..