Rhetorical dilemmas in funded science annual reporting
Scientists experience angst when faced with the task of writing the annual reports often required by their employers or funders. Although similar annual reports are widely studied in business contexts, communication and science studies disciplines have not considered annual reporting in science contexts. This is an oversight because annual reporting is one of the main ways that scientists communicate the progress of their research to stakeholders, including publics and policy-makers. Therefore, annual reporting is one way that science is guided and constrained by societal and cultural expectations. Further, existing scholarship has not considered the scientists’ frustration in reporting, which is a missed opportunity for communication scholars to engage with real, reoccurring communication concerns. Therefore, this dissertation fills these gaps by developing a deeper understanding of the experiences, issues, and challenges of science annual reporting. Specifically, this dissertation explores the ways in which scientists’ interpretations of their obligations suggest many possible rhetorical routes to fulfill report requirements, some of which are in tension with each other. It also shows strategies report writers use to make and justify their choices.
The National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research for Iowa (Iowa NSF EPSCoR), a large interdisciplinary and interinstitutional grant project provides a useful case to study how annual reporting works since changing report requirements over its 5-year term led Iowa scientists and staff to regularly re-evaluate how they wrote reports. Interviews with faculty and staff, annual report documents, and other supporting documents were analyzed using grounded practical theory and rhetorical analysis. The analysis identifies the reasoned, reflective, but sometimes tension-reinforcing decisions report writers make about how to manage communication dilemmas. Although communication research generally considers transfer of known genre characteristics a way to constructively manage uncertainty in how to write, this case shows the transfer sometimes reinforces problems.
Annual report writers at Iowa NSF EPSCoR experience problems largely due to the rhetorical scarcity NSF prescriptions create. Changing national requirements restrict some rhetorical choices such as word count, timing of submission, and style, while also identifying varied audiences to target and providing frameworks for organizing rich detail. These prescriptions not only conflict with each other; they also often run afoul of what report writers believe an annual report ought to be like. This leaves report writers with a dilemma in how to best write a report.
In particular, requirements that ensure grant research is described in detail compete with requirements to ensure concision, such as page restrictions. As well, report writers’ perception of the annual report as a stakeholder-oriented communication with unknown public stakeholders plays a role in creating rhetorical scarcity because the rhetorical tools to target different audiences also sometimes conflict with each other, and writers are uncertain which set to use. In addition, rhetorical scarcity is felt when report requirements do not seem to allow for writers to fulfill their administrative role to support local faculty and staff fairly, for example by describing all the research in equal detail.
When report writers choose any of a myriad of rhetorical techniques, such as highlighting only one research project, including figures or tables, or including prose descriptions, they show the salience of two ideal visions for the annual reports: the annual report as a comprehensive inventory of activities and the annual report as a narrative of struggle and achievement. These ideal visions are important because they are whole models of good conduct and values. Report writers use these ideals to justify their rhetorical choices during reporting. Inventory includes characteristics such as reporting data in tables and appendices, targeting evaluative audiences, and valuing numeric, comprehensive, and granular data. Report writers often describe inventorial reporting in the positive frame of “keeping track” of activities or more ambivalently as merely “collecting.” Narrative includes characteristics such as a single prose voice and temporal organization, targeting skeptical public audiences, and valuing coherence and balance. The inventory and narrative ideals imperfectly combine. This imperfect combination brings rhetorical scarcity to the forefront and reinforces frustration.
Based on these results, there is a potential opportunity for communication scholars to positively engage with frustrated science annual report writers by guiding reflection about the ideals being invoked, their interaction, and their fit with stakeholder expectations. This engagement promises to help report writers better manage the frustrations of annual reporting.