One of the biggest challenges facing scientists is how to make their work relevant to the public. How does work on chromosome methylation or fruit fly development affect my daily life?
Recognizing the importance of this issue, the National Science Foundation in 1997 instituted a requirement for all grant applications to include a section detailing how the proposed research would “benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” Often reviled and always controversial, the Broader Impacts requirement has nonetheless forced scientists to consider the long-term societal implications of their work, oftentimes to surprisingly beneficial results.
Last week, the NSF released a report titled “Perspectives on Broader Impacts” that lays out different ways in which researchers have brought their work to a wider audience. Stories included in the report include how leftover coconuts can be converted into building materials, ways to track and analyze the spread of Ebola, and unique training and outreach programs that get students engaged with the scientific process. The report also includes insight from the NSF and a review of community discussions on Broader Impacts, such as those raised at the 2014 Broader Impacts Summit.
This report comes out at a time when scientific research funding agencies, the NSF in particular, are under increased Congressional scrutiny to demonstrate the relevance of the work that they support. While other agencies have unfortunately yet follow the NSF’s lead in directing grantees to demonstrate the applicability of their research, the success of the Broader Impacts requirement in showcasing how research funded by the agency has practical, real-world implications will hopefully spur a legion of copycats.
As more and more scientists think about ways to share their research with the public, the scientific community will hopefully see a swell of support for its work. Now that would be something uncontroversial.
Find more about Broader Impacts here.