Run that by me again?

On the joys of the lay summary

Stephen Curry 9 November 2008

Lost in translation: science summaries can be the hardest part

Some scientists seem to be horrified by the task of rendering their work intelligible to the general public

When scientists apply for grants to support their work, typically from government-funded research councils or charities, they write a detailed scientific justification to explain why the experiments they plan to do will generate new and useful information. This case for support, which can run to many densely typed pages, is reviewed by experts working in the same field and then considered by a panel of scientists who finally decide whether to award the money. It’s a protracted and often painful procedure.

Part of the process requires the applicant to write a ‘lay’ summary of the scientific case. In theory, this is to ‘engage’ the public so that the taxpayers who ultimately fund the research might have some idea of what the money is being spent on. And maybe it will also inspire a taste for the subject in some of the younger generation.

But in reality it is not clear that the general public ever gets to read these summaries, so writing them is often seen as a laborious chore. The job of assembling a grant application is already difficult and time-consuming and, if I’m honest, I have usually left the lay summary till the end of the application process and often just write it by rewording the technical summary in simpler language.

At least, however, I do make some effort – I do appreciate the value of making science accessible to the general public, even if I haven’t always got the time or energy to do a brilliant job. But recently in her blog on Nature Network, Cath Ennis bemoaned the fact that many of her colleagues are happy to offload the task to her because she has a gift for the common touch and, frankly, they can’t be bothered. Clearly some scientists seem to be horrified by the task of rendering their work intelligible to the general public. Intriguingly, despite her grumbles about her colleagues, Cath confessed that she rather enjoys the challenge of putting the science into accessible language.

And that made me think that I should find a way to enjoy it too. So, taking my cue from LabLit, I had some fun blending science and fiction. On my last grant application, which is devoted to analysis of how a viral enzyme works, I wrote the lay summary in an extremely short story format that I hoped might appeal to the general reader. It was still rather tricky since there were only 200 words to play with, but here goes nothing:

From the doorway Elizabeth gazed at her father, hunched over his keyboard.

“Whatcha doin’?”

He leaned back and stretched. Flexing his brow to force his eyes wide-open, he peered at the screen.

“I’m applying for money for our research on foot-and-mouth disease virus,” he said through an extended yawn. “We’ve made an exciting breakthrough by working out the structure of an important virus protease, a molecule that helps to re-shape other viral proteins when new virus particles are being made inside infected animals. So now we can think about searching for drugs that might stick to the protease and stop it from working. These could be used to stop foot-and-mouth outbreaks from getting out of hand.

“To help us with that, we need to figure out exactly what shapes of protein molecules the protease likes to bind to. We’ve got lots of ideas about how to do this in a really systematic way – using cool tricks like phage display, X-ray crystallography, mutagenesis and peptide cleavage assays.”

He was getting carried away.

“But first I have to write this and hope they pay up. What do you think?”

He looked over to the doorway but she was gone.

For my next grant application, I am considering composing the lay summary as a sonnet.