Broader Impacts. The mere mention of these two words provokes intense reactions from scientists. For some, they are a burdensome requirement unilaterally imposed on the research community by the National Science Foundation; others see Broader Impacts as a necessary attempt by the agency to justify use of taxpayer money to fund the scientific enterprise. One thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that integration of Broader Impacts within the grant funding process has been difficult, suffering from vague guidelines and inconsistent implementation.
In an attempt to strengthen collaboration, scholarship and policy related to Broader Impacts, leaders from the field converged last week on the NSF’s backyard of Arlington, VA for the 2014 Broader Impacts Summit. Featuring three days of presentations, panel discussions and informal conversations, the Summit hosted a mixture of Broader Impacts professionals from universities, informal science institutions, and professional organizations alongside NSF staff.
Two major themes ran throughout the meeting: what does a successful Broader Impacts program look like, and how can the different types of Broader Impacts activities and proposals be properly evaluated? A major frustration for those involved with Broader Impacts has been the massive confusion as to what type of activity actually constitutes Broader Impacts. Keynote speakers Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark and Freeman Hrabowski, President at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, both defined their vision of successful Broader Impacts as being achieved through the seamless integration of scientific research within local community structures. Providing grist to this mill, several presenters gave examples of how their individual programs were doing just that, ranging from the K-12 community outreach program run by the Yale Pathways to Science program to state-wide engaged scholarship activities at Iowa State University, while also explaining how such programs could be used to motivate scientist participation and engage broader communities.
Unfortunately, the NSF itself has been reluctant to provide too prescriptive a framework as to what they consider Broader Impacts to be, concerned that including explicit standards and definitions would hamper the process by excluding activities that happen to fall outside of these borders. Sadly, this reticence continued at the Summit, with agency administrators from top to bottom refusing to do more than call on the community to develop guidelines on its own, on the assumption that a bottom-up approach would be most equitable.
Beyond creating confusion over what to include in Broader Impacts proposals, such lack of guidance also was also seen be conference attendees to be harming attempts at proper evaluation. To help improve the evaluation process, attendees debated how reviewers on grant panels could be adequately prepared so as to be able to properly evaluate the Broader Impacts portion of proposals. Individual panelists from the community were able to point to resources and strategies that they used in their evaluation efforts, though these relied on a wide range of metrics, suggesting that a unified evaluative framework is still lacking.
The grass-roots, piecemeal manner in which individual Broader Impacts programs have developed and grown is simultaneously both the source of inspiration for the Summit, and one of the overarching issues that the Summit was aiming to rectify. By bringing together leaders and program organizers from across the country, the Summit is a fantastic first step towards allowing the community to collectively move forward to address the issues that have been raised. To continue with the development of this process, conference organizer Susan Renoe from the University of Missouri happily announced that a Regional Coordination Network proposal had been approved for NSF funding starting in 2015. The RCN grant will allow for support of future summits along with providing more opportunities to bring together different stakeholders, expanding the pool of participants, and furthering development and dissemination of Broader Impacts resources.
There is still a mountain left to climb in terms of improving the Broader Impacts framework; at least now the community has left base camp.
For a sample of Twitter activity during the Summit, visit: https://storify.com/TheGeoffHunt/biis14