Abbreviated science

KFC, MTV, BP, BBC, NASA, NHS, UNICEF, FIFA…combinations of letters that are known the world over. These famous examples demonstrate the power of the acronym, a word formed from the initial components of a series of other words.

A full list of acronyms used in this post can be found at the bottom.

You may have noticed that acronyms in science seem to be everywhere. No grant proposal, research group or society is complete without the obligatory ‘humorous’ three- or four-letter shorthand. Bristol is placed pretty well for this; take BIG, BAPs and BUMS (…ok, the last one isn’t science-y). It’s easy to be dismissive and laugh them off as gimmicks. But do they help or hinder the scientific cause?

b logos
Bristol is home to BIG, BAPs and BUMS…or Bristol Isotope Group, Bristol Andros Projects and Bristol University Music Society


The main aim of using acronyms is to minimise confusion. Instead of talking about “that project I’m doing with the University of X on country Y and rock type Z”, you can whip out your catchy calling card: “I’m a researcher in MAGIC” or “My research is part of the VUELCO project”. They’re especially useful when a project involves collboration between many different institutions (e.g., LUMPS & BUMPS), especially when the groups involved may not all share the same primary language. Grouping smaller projects under a larger umbrella helps raise the collective profile, making funding applications easier. Indeed, an acronym of twenty characters or less is a requirement for ERC grants, and most people are now using them for NERC funding too.

The breath- and paper-saving capacity of acronyms is another major motivation for using them. Acronyms have long been used to shorten tongue-twisting scientific terms; over time, some have even entered the English language as common nouns (e.g., laser, radar or sonar).

Acronyms also serve to provide an identity.  Take IKEA, M & Ms and BMW. Their expanded versions don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but take their initials and you have yourself a succinct name fitting of a global brand. This feeds into the wider issue of disseminating tax-payer funded research. Having a unique (in the scientific world, at least) acronym enables you to register your own website domain, come up with a fitting logo and grab a memorable Twitter handle.

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The logos of Bristol Experimental Earth STudies (BEEST), Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group (VMSG), and Bristol Research Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment (BRIDGE).

Of course, before we all go acronym-crazy, there are some guidelines we should try and follow. In an ideal world, the chosen letters should convey the topic (e.g., BRISK = Bristol Environmental Risk Research Centre). It also helps if you can actually pronounce the acronym (e.g., NEMOH, SHRIMP). Bad examples are contrived and long-winded. At the very least, the acronym should not directly contradict the point of your research (e.g., ARSE). As a rule of thumb, it’s also best to avoid letter combinations that you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting on the back of a t-shirt (how about Bristol Institute for Geophysics, Petroleum ENgineering, and Induced Seismicity or The Oxford Isotope Laboratory for Earth Tracers*?).

The biggest danger with using acronyms that is that their use creates exclusivity. We’ve all been in a situation at a conference or in casual common room conversation where the uncensored use of acronyms leaves you feeling completely confused. As with all areas of science communication, it’s important that the use acronyms is appropriate for the audience. If in doubt, always introduce the acronym before using it.

So go forth and get acronymining! Oh, and don’t worry if you’re stuck for an idea. Lots of websites provide a free ‘acronym-finding‘ service – hours of fun.

List of acronyms used in this post:
ARSE = American association of cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation Risk Stratification criteria for clinical Events
BAPs = Bristol Andros Projects
BBC = British Broadcasting Corporation
BIG = Bristol Isotope Group
BP = British Petroleum
BUMS = Bristol University Music Society
BEEST = Bristol Experimental Earth STudies
BRISK = Bristol Environmental Risk Research Centre
BMW = Bayerische Motoren Werke
FIFA = Fédération Internationale de Football Association
IKEA = Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd
KFC = Kentucky Fried Chicken
Laser = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
LUMPS & BUMPS = Bristol & Leeds University Microseismic ProjectS
M & Ms = Mars & Murrie’s
MAGIC = MAss spectrometry & isotope Geochemistry at Imperial College (London)
MTV = Music TeleVision
NASA = National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NEMOH = Numerical, Experimental and stochastic Modelling of vOlcanic processes and Hazard
NHS = National Health Service
Radar = RAdio Detection And Ranging
SHRIMP = Sensitive High Resolution Ion Microprobe
Sonar = SOund Navigation And Ranging
UNICEF = United Nations Children’s Fund
VUELCO = Volcanic Unrest in Europe and Latin America

*Not official acronyms…

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

3 comments on “Abbreviated science

    1. Not even Beyond Petroleum that was just a short lived marketing strategy, its just BP, not standing for anything, the same with BG, it doesn’t stand for anything now!

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