2016 Broader Impacts Summit


Scientists are finding it harder and harder to get money from the federal government to support their research. Success rates have plummeted. Competition is fierce. And on top of all of this, there is increased oversight of the spending done by scientific funding agencies. The National Science Foundation in particular has come under scrutiny from Congress, with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee taking an uncomfortably close look at how the agency spends its allocated dollars. While the motivation for the committee’s specific interest in the agency’s granting process can be debated, the fact that it is happening at all points towards to a broader need for scientists to show how the funding they receive is being used properly and effectively.

Such is the impetus behind the Broader Impacts requirement for NSF grant proposals. Since 1990, applicants to the NSF have been instructed to include a description of how their proposal will have the “potential to benefit society.” While this criteria is supposed to be given equal consideration to the scientific intellectual merit of the proposal, the quality of Broader Impacts proposals are unfortunately highly variable, as is the process of reviewing these ideas.

NABI sign

The 2016 Broader Impacts Summit was held in Philadelphia, PA

Hoping to provide some level of guidance to the scientific community, the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) has, since 2013, organized an annual Broader Impacts summit that brings together outreach department directors and managers from institutions across the country (and beyond!). At this year’s summit, which took place April 20-22 in Philadelphia, PA, program officers from the NSF repeatedly emphasized that grant reviewers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the idea that Broader Impacts be taken into consideration when determining the merit of a proposal. This point was accentuated by Dr. Suzi Iacono, head of the NSF Office of Integrative Activities, who showed striking data indicating that grant panel reviewers spend more effort discussing Broader Impacts in their reports than applicants do in their proposals. However, she cautioned that the data shows high variability across the agency’s eight directorates in terms of the type and quality of Broader Impacts proposals, suggesting that there is still work to be done in order to establish a community standard.

NSF Program Director Karen Cone gives one of the keynote addresses at the 2016 Broader Impacts Summit

NSF Program Director Karen Cone gives one of the keynote addresses at the 2016 Broader Impacts Summit

During the conference, several attendees presented about ground-level efforts related to Broader Impacts, such as how to start a Broader Impacts office at an institution, and how to get involvement and buy-in from different stakeholders, including faculty, students and administrators. Other sessions focused on approaches for engaging with the local community via creation of two-way dialogues that incorporate perspectives from outside the scientific community. The ASBMB, which is a member partner of NABI and one of the summit sponsors, was represented in the form of a session co-chaired by Manager of Public Outreach Geoff Hunt on defining the role and scope of Public Engagement professionals. Other popular sessions included a breakout session on evaluation of Broader Impacts activities, and several discussions on broadening participation in STEM fields by including underserved communities.

Moving forward, the summit will continue to serve as a locus for building a community of investigators and outreach managers dedicated to strengthening and standardizing Broader Impacts. NABI is also looking to expand upon their efforts by developing resources that can improve the quality of Broader Impacts. The group recently published a freely-available guide to writing and reviewing Broader Impacts, and is in the process of developing live training workshops that can help scientists implement these recommendations. One potential place for such a training that has been discussed is at the ASBMB Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement (IMAGE) grant writing workshop.

Want to get/stay involved? Sign up for NABI yourself here!

Outreach Sessions at EB2016


Science cafes. Social media campaigns. K-12 classroom programs. There is a whole world of outreach going on out there. The challenge for anyone looking to participate in an outreach event or even start their own outreach program is sorting through this morass to find the opportunity that is right for them. Luckily, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has organized a series of events during EB2016 that will showcase and highlight several of these programs that will give you the chance to figure out which type of outreach activity is right for you, and how to go about getting involved.

We’ll start with “Building Your Outreach Program from A To Z” on the morning of Saturday April 2. During this session, we will hear from recipients of the ASBMB HOPES seed grant program, as well as individuals from other community outreach programs, who will talk about how they organize their activities and what scientists can do to get involved. These presentations will give you the opportunity to ask the questions about outreach that you’ve never gotten answered, and to form some real collaborations with others in the audience who are (or have been) in your shoes.

One of the biggest challenges with outreach is how to go from a good idea to a functional, sustainable program. That requires funding. One source is the National Science Foundation (NSF), which requires any proposal to the agency to include a section describing the broader impacts of the proposed scientific endeavor. Traditionally, the Broader Impacts requirement has been a challenge to navigate, so to help you out we have lined up a panel of experts who have extensive experience with the NSF funding process. The panel includes individuals who have been successful in obtaining NSF grants, former NSF program officers, and a university official whose job it is to help researchers prepare their grant applications. This lively discussion will help walk you through the process from start to finish, and provide insight on how best to go about constructing your proposal.

Poster session

If a formal session is too intimidating, or if your travel plans mean you won’t arrive at the meeting until later, no worries. Grab a drink and come hang out during our outreach poster session during the ASBMB Opening Reception on Saturday night from 7 – 9 PM. This informal event will be a great chance to casually interact with members of the ASBMB community who are currently involved in outreach. We have lined up nearly 20 different presenters from around the country who have posters that describe their individual programs, giving you a chance to get your questions answered in a one-on-one setting. Come see the variety of programming that the outreach community has to offer!

These outreach sessions are a great way to kick off your meeting in the right way. See you there!

Come Together


For those involved with public outreach, a major challenge is often just finding other people like you, even if they are at the very same institution. Last week in Arlington, VA, the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) hosted a convening to bring these individuals together. The goal of the two day conference, born out of the last summer’s NSF Advancing Informal STEM Learning PI meeting, was to facilitate collaborations both national and regional, and allow for the sharing of ideas and best practices. A majority of attendees were education and outreach directors from NSF-funded centers and facilities, including several from NSF-supported Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) and Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCIs), while others in attendance came from professional societies, national networks, and even the NSF itself.

Meeting facilitators began the convening by identifying a set of “knowns” and “unknowns” in the field of informal science education (ISE), as a way to nudge attendees towards developing action items that could be used to strengthen the “knowns” and turn the “unknowns” into “knowns.” Using this framework, participants then spent the rest of the meeting engaged in loosely-structured interactive discussions, focused on four primary topics:

  1. Designing and Evaluating Education and Outreach Programs at Centers and Large Facilities
  2. Working with ISE Institutions and Networks
  3. Current and Past Productive Areas of ISE Research
  4. Implications for ISE from Recent Science of Science Communication Findings

From these discussions, a prioritized list of needs was generated in order to determine actionable next steps. A lot of interest focused on the NSF’s Broader Impacts requirement for grant applications, something that will likely be a hot topic at the upcoming Broader Impacts Summit. Participants felt that it would be extremely beneficial for the community to develop resources, standardized guidelines and event trainings for Broader Impacts statements, which would not only help applicants but also reviewers and program officers.

Attendees additionally pushed for the development of a centralized repository that would allow for aggregation of all things outreach. This would include successful public engagement models and examples, resources such as evaluation tools, and potentially a map of existing networks and programs involved in any type of outreach, science communication, public engagement or informal science education. Several existing websites, including the informalscience.org website, the AAAS Trellis website and the ASBMB outreach website, are attempting to do just that.

Another area of need identified by meeting participants was the continued development of common spaces and venues that would allow for informal science professionals, STEM researchers, science communication experts and social scientists and evaluators to connect and develop activities and programs jointly. Similarly, there was much discussion of finding a way to lessen the divide between informal and formal STEM education, perhaps by working in conjunction with groups such as the National Science Teachers Association. Professional society meetings would seem to be obvious locations for such interactions, while CAISE is also looking at ways to host additional convenings.

Two of the major needs identified by participants that unfortunately lacked specific actionable items were increasing both funding resources and programmatic sustainability, common themes for those involved in the field.  However, attendees felt that building of networks and personal and institutional connections could at least help the field start coming up with solutions to these issues.

ASBMB will continue to work with groups like CAISE to help improve the practice of informal science education and expand the field of those involved with the public outreach. If you have questions about how to get involved, get in touch with us at outreach@asbmb.org.

NSF and You


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.

Perspective on Broader Impacts

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.

A BIONIC Community


Following up on the successful 2014 Broader Impacts Summit held this past April, the National Science Foundation this week officially announced that funding has been approved for the Broader Impacts and Outreach Network for Institutional Collaboration (BIONIC) project, which aims to “create a community of practice that fosters the development of sustainable and scalable institutional capacity for and engagement in broader impacts activity.”

The key word in that description is “community,” a point that was emphasized repeatedly during the Broader Impacts Summit. The BIONIC organizers are strongly encouraging input and feedback from those scientists, researchers and educators who are interested in, involved with, or in any way impacted by Broader Impacts.

If you are interested in participating in the BIONIC network, start by signing up for the BIONIC listserv to join the national Broader Impacts discussion:

  • Send a new email to listserv@po.missouri.edu with a blank subject line
  • Delete EVERYTHING from your email (make sure you take out your signature line as well!) except this text:  Subscribe BROADERIMPACTSSUMMIT-L

ASBMB has signed on as on official collaborator for the project, so we will be working closely with the organizers as they build and expand the BIONIC network. Feel free to reach out to us at outreach@asbmb.org with your suggestions!

Scaling the Summit


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.

Broader Impacts Summit 2014

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.

BIIS14 Session

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.  BIONICTo 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