Transformative research: an English concept?

07/26/2010 by Sylvain Hallé

I am currently preparing a grant proposal to Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. While reading the grant guidelines, I stumbled upon a term I had never heard before: transformative research. It is said that "the elements for the originality, innovation and significance of the research will be reworded to encourage research that is transformative". Leaving aside any opinion on the merit of transformative research itself, I can say the term was obscure enough to me that I had to look for a definition.

Actually, transformative research is a term that has been coined by the US National Science Foundation in August 2007. Its official definition can be found on the NSF web site. Following the recommendation of an international review committee, the NSERC followed suit and now reuses that concept in its own guidelines. However, apart from a quick (and unreferenced) mention to the NSF in the panel's official report, the NSERC does not define that term in any of its own documents. In English this is a minor caveat, since Googling for "transformative research" easily leads one back to the NSF definition.

Yet, in the French version of the guidelines, that term has been appropriately translated into recherche transformatrice. Since French and English documents are the mirror image of each other, that term is no more defined in NSERC's French official documents. Yet this time, Googling for "recherche transformatrice" leads to nothing. This should not be surprising, since the only definition one can find in English comes from the NSF —which, obviously, does not have a French version of its texts.

Therefore, strictly speaking, NSERC uses a term whose specific definition in the present context only exists in English. If the NSERC defined the term in its own guidelines, rather than relying on a US document, it would also have to produce a French definition, which, at the moment, does not seem to have any official existence. Not a big deal for me, since I've been writing my proposals in English for years, anticipating exactly that kind of glitch if I used my mother tongue.

(Reminder to international readers: English and French are the two official languages of Canada.)

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