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Does Science Have a Buzzword Problem?

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Shooting for the metaphorical moon, it turns out, is a popular pastime in science-planning circles. “I’ve been in Washington for a very long time, and I feel like every time I turn around, somebody says we need a new moonshot,” says Kathy Hudson, who has served as deputy director for science, outreach and policy at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.

‘Moonshot’, ‘road map’, ‘initiative’ and other science-planning buzzwords have meaning, yet even some of the people who choose these terms have trouble defining them precisely. The terms might seem interchangeable, but close examination reveals a subtle hierarchy in their intentions and goals. Moonshots, for example, focus on achievable, but lofty, engineering problems. Road maps and decadal surveys (see ‘Alternate aliases’) lay out milestones and timelines or set priorities for a field. That said, many planning projects masquerade as one title while acting as another.

Strategic plans that bear these lofty names often tout big price tags and encourage collaborative undertakings. In the United States, for instance, science-funding agencies are hoping to start or continue many ‘big science’ efforts in 2017.