Sci-Com in the Classroom


Raise your hand if you took a communications class in school. Probably not too many palms in the air. Formal training on how to be a good communicator, especially for those studying a scientific discipline, is rare. However, as the science communication movement continues to gain momentum, examples of such ventures are becoming increasingly common.

The July issue of ASBMB Today highlights one particular science communication course taught at the University of California, Riverside by Dr. Tom Baldwin (who also happens to chair the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee). The article lays out Dr. Baldwin’s blueprint for training his students in the art of science communication, distinguishing ways to connect with both professional and non-expert audiences. In addition, Dr. Baldwin describes how he breaks down communication into some of its most basic components, such as storytelling and presentation style.

Students from the course also present their perspectives, describing their motivations for taking the class and highlighting what they learned. While the students came into the course with different interests and expectations, they all left with an understanding of the importance of being an effective communicator. Several mention a meeting with Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA) as being particularly insightful as to how good communication can impact real-world outcomes.

Thankfully, Dr. Baldwin’s course is not unique. Institutions around the country are increasingly offering formalized communication training for scientists, either incorporated into regular science courses (such as that taught by Professor Ricky Cox in his biochemistry course at Murray State University) or as stand-alone courses (for example, the “Science and Me” course at the University of Missouri organized by Hannah Alexander).

While such courses are great for current and future students, what kind of training is available for scientists who are at more advanced stages of their careers? To serve as broad an audience as possible, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee is developing an online science communication training course for ASBMB members of all ages that will be available come 2015. Even better, Dr. Baldwin has lent his expertise to help develop the course. So if you like what you read about his course, you’ll soon be able to experience it for yourself. That’s something that will make you throw your hands in the air.

Read the article here.

Click here to learn more about the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee

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: