What’s in a name? Quite a lot as it happens

Names often have profound impacts. When it comes to animals, simple descriptive names, such as the red-backed spider work well. Though arguably the name of its American cousin, which lacks a red dorsal stripe – and is called the black widow – is more poetic. 

Bureaucracies choose names very carefully. People often become cynical about the terminology used by organisations that wield power over them, but I applaud some of the naming. 

For a start – the Australian Universities Accord – is a good name for the O’Kane review process, since it seeks to operate with cordiality and to reach, rather than to impose, a working agreement. 

I particularly like the names used by the NHMRC for their research grant schemes. They have Investigator grants, Ideas grants, and Synergy grants. Many countries have similar schemes, but I think our names are better than most. Investigator has replaced the former word – Fellow. That word had become rather academic, and perhaps now just suggested a lofty intellectual, thinking worthy thoughts at a dusty desk. In contrast an Investigator might invoke Sherlock Holmes.

My favourite name is Ideas grants. Formerly these were just Project grants. I imagine there was some pressure to apply a name related to translation, therapies, or applications, but happily the NHMRC settled on Ideas, and accordingly the name encourages original research and fundamental science. 

The name Synergy is the most unorthodox and perhaps a little odd, but I like it too. These grants enable networks of researchers to come together to investigate a shared problem. In my experience networks are too often assembled with political considerations in mind, in which case they sometimes offer all the synergies of a three-legged race. But the NHMRC is clearly indicating that the team should function synergistically, rather than merely nod to geography and politics. 

You may marvel at my positivity, but I also love the ARC grant scheme names. Particularly the name Discovery grant. The creation of new knowledge is the fundamental source, the solar energy, of our civilisation. I keep hearing that Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing will cure cancer and arrest climate change. Communication technologies certainly have value, but they can’t tell us what we don’t know. They can’t tell us about the dark side of the moon. Understanding that requires exploration and discovery.

Most of the breakthroughs I have seen during my career have come via discoveries. Some contend that collaboration at the interface of disciplines is what drives discovery, but I think it drives secondary application. The fundamental discovery of the CRISPR system for modifying DNA by a lone researcher at Alicante University in Spain, Francisco Mojica, who studied bacteria in local salt marshes, should be celebrated as much as the spectacular successes of adapting this technology to edit human DNA. Discovery precedes application. So, I’m glad the ARC celebrates discovery.

The ARC also offers Linkage grants that are well-named, because they do successfully link academics with industry partners. The Discovery Early Career Research Awards (DECRAs) is one name I don’t like. It has become an acronym and reminds me of Orwell’s reference to the “plague of initials” that were used to identify different factions during the Spanish Civil war, or the different liberation organisations in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. When a name becomes an acronym, it can lose its power. 

At my university, acronyms have proliferated. One notable example concerned our student surveys. A huge amount of thought went into establishing them initially as, what were called, CATEI surveys. When I joined UNSW I asked people what CATEI stood for and no one knew. Pause and try to guess?

It stood for Course And Teaching Evaluation and Improvement. The sentiment was smart, but it got lost in the acronym. So, we considered two new possible names: MyExperience or Student Voice surveys. We went with MyExperience to indicate this was not an evaluation of teaching effectiveness but feedback about each individual student’s experience.

The MyExperience surveys are still occasionally misunderstood. People worry that management will blindly use the numbers as raw indicators of teaching effectiveness, without regard to complicating factors, like response rates, biases, and the rigour of courses (a course that rightly pushes students out of their comfort zone would obviously not get universal approval). But on reflection most people realise that the interests of management, staff, and students are aligned here – everyone wants to make student learning and the student experience as good as possible, and the data and comments available via the student voice is valuable. Moreover, providing opportunities for students to respond, in itself, enhances trust across the university. The best evidence for this is probably the fact that the student response rate is about 50 per cent. 

The name of the government’s suite of student feedback surveys – QILT – is cool because it is a memorable acronym. People can guess what it means: Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching. It is proclaiming loudly that it wants to measure quality, not quantity, in student learning, and graduate outcomes. 

I like the names of the different QILT surveys: the Student Experience Survey (SES), the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS) etc. The names explain what is in the tin. 

Names cannot do everything, but a good name sets the right direction. It is then up to everyone in the community to support and embed the positive trajectory if there is one. In this way progress can be made even in the age of our growing, glacial bureaucracies. 



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