Thursday, January 07, 2010

Brain Wave

It's interesting how the policies of funding agencies can have a pervasive effect on our thought processes. I am thinking of a specific example: broader impacts.

When BIs were first introduced as a required component of proposals, they were commonly an afterthought or just a statement of what PIs were already doing (advising grad students). With time, the BI component of some proposals that I reviewed became more interesting and innovative; some involved more outreach, e.g. interaction with K-12 teachers or the public, and some demonstrated a sincere commitment to increasing diversity of various sorts. Not most, or even many, but some did.

Perhaps there have been studies of the impact, if any, of the broader impacts proposal requirement on outreach, education, and so on. The effects might be hard to measure, but it would nevertheless be interesting to know if there has been any observable change in academic culture.

The BI requirement has had one observable effect on me, as demonstrated by the anecdote that motivated this post.

As I've written about before, I (and many of you) often receive invitations from random people to do random things that, in some cases, I can't imagine wanting to do, and, in others, I can't imagine having the time to do. Now and then something worthwhile comes along, but these are rare.

But: I recently got an e-mail with a request for me to do unspecified things involving communicating about some aspects of my research that might somehow inspire a contemporary dance project and/or a project involving children, literature, and culture by someone I don't know. I was about to delete the e-mail, having absolutely no idea what this person was asking me to do, but then I paused and thought "Hmm... broader impacts... might this be considered an interesting and innovative type of outreach?"

Is that thought totally corrupt or creative?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

creative

Hope said...

It’s both, since it seems that you would have deleted the email otherwise. However, if the project is worthwhile, then the ends justify the means, so to speak. So who cares that your motives weren’t all that … pure.

Anonymous said...

it is both creative AND corrupt.

It's like when people only do a bare minimum of volunteer service (like one day or one hour or whatnot) just so they can put it on their resume. sure the world does benefit from their one day of service that they otherwise wouldn't have done at all. But that doesn't change the fact that the motivation was still primarily self-serving.

there's nothing wrong with engaging in activities for self-benefit. Everyone does that (like working towards career advancement). It's only when one instead tries to classify such activities until an altruistic heading that it is disengenuous.

Anonymous said...

I always believe that as long as the outcome is positive and you would put your whole heart into the project when actually doing it, it doesn't really matter what your hidden agenda was.

Odyssey said...

Creative. If I reviewed a grant where this was included in the BI's I would be delighted.

BB said...

It wouldn't count as "broader impact" for my funding agencies (VA, NIH) but it sounds like fun anyway. Unless it's a grant for recruiting young people or non-scientists into science, that might work. I could bring my flute.

justcallmemsfrizzle said...

I think it is totally creative. I majored in Physics in undergraduate and am now in graduate school for teaching at the secondary level. I also studied Dance and Musical Theatre in college and I am convinced that science and the arts should interact more often. I can not help but think of all the ways the two over lap. I would encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity. Too often scientists (and artists) choose to alienate themselves from other ways of thinking and exploring the world. I would be interested to hear more about the project.

Barbara Houtz / Educational Consultant said...

Something like this has already been done, and quite successfully.

In 2008, a dance illustrating genetic interactions was created by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and debuted on DNA Day. Here's a link: http://www.genome.gov/Pages/Education/DNADay/News&Features/DNADayPreviewsApril2008.pdf

I'm a director of outreach for a large research institution. I help the faculty develop & implement a number of broader impacts programs. It's a quickly growing field. It's common for most research faculty to think that mentoring grad students is just about all one needs to do, but the reality of what NSF would LIKE to see is very different. I can send you some information about the programs I help develop & run, if you're interested.

a physicist said...

Totally creative.

Without giving details: I got an email a bit like that a few years ago, a random solicitation for me to do something. I decided to do it, and took photos of the activity. At the time, I wasn't thinking broad impacts, but later I had to submit my NSF annual report, so I reported my activity as my NSF broad impact for my grant. NSF loved it and I got an amazing amount of publicity from this. NSF uses one of our photos in some of their publicity proclaiming their broad impacts. And all because I answered "yes" to a random email. So I've become much more open to random requests that I could potentially claim as a broad impact.

So to answer the bigger question, yes, I think if the NSF's request for BI's has opened us up to saying yes to more opportunities, then that's an interesting culture shift.

Greg said...

Use it!

Anonymous said...

Creative. You may even enjoy doing it!

Sophia said...

It can be creative and well received, like the 'superconducting dance': http://icam-i2cam.org/icamnews/?p=92

Monisha said...

It is totally creative. My husband's work is completely applied/technical, but at some point was pulled into a collaboration with some dancers and artists. The result was really unique and cool and gratifying.

my university also is involved in "The utah science and literature symposium", which attempts to create these types of synergies (disclosure - I'm on the board of the symposium) between arts and sciences.

rocketscientista said...

Possibly neither. As it wasn't necessarily your idea to do crazy weird thing with dancing children, I don't know if you can really take credit for the creative aspect, unless you add your own twist and make it a really worthwhile opportunity.

And as BI are a requirement, taking advantage of an opportunity that presents itself is totally cool.

I've been involved in groups that wanted some help on outreach projects, and without the BI requirement, we could have been dead in the water. We felt ok sharing our ideas and helping plan if we got the scientists involved. We loved that the requirement existed- it helped us get more scientists involved! However, if you find out more and the project is mostly wishy washy without much actual impact? I might pass at that point. Using something that is barely tangentially related to your science and not actually impacting? That could be corrupt.

Anonymous said...

As far as assessing the impact of BI, this is definitely a focus for NSF. I just participated in the review of an outreach program that NSF funds at the national level. Two of the goals of this program are to facilitate effective education and outreach by scientists and another is to change their attitudes about BI. The effectiveness of both of these goals are being assessed. It will be interesting to see the outcome!

Anonymous said...

I actually reviewed a proposal to do exactly what you were approached to do. (And it has been done before.) The question is whether you think it is worth your time. Ask yourself what you are willing to give up in order to participate. A day in the lab? Time writing a grant? Time with your child?
The problem is not what NSF wants to see, it's what the reviewers want to see and most of them are utterly clueless as to what BI is about. You would probably be safer doing something the 'average' researcher would consider 'excellent'. I'm sad that that is the way it is, but that's my experience writing and reviewing on panels.

Anonymous said...

I think it's fantastic and that you should do it. It may make you more open to these kinds of collaborations in the future so that your first impulse is no longer to delete these emails immediately. While at the moment you may have purely selfish reasons for agreeing to this collaboration, you may find that this changes in the future. And after all, isn't that one of the reasons for BIs anyway? To not only impact the world around you, but to be impacted in new ways yourself. At least, that's my naive, not-yet-jaded view.

female Science Professor said...

It wasn't so much the topic of the email that made my first instinct be to reach for the DELETE key, it was more that the email was kind of incoherent. I had absolutely no idea what this person was asking me to do. The thought of broader impacts made me pause and seek more information. I may or may not be glad that I didn't delete the email; we will see..

J. Britt Holbrook said...

Hi, Female Science Professor, et al.

Y'all might be interested in this web page, which contains lots of information regarding the Broader Impacts Criterion: http://www.csid.unt.edu/topics/NSFbroaderimpactscriterion.html.

There's also a new blog put together by the folks at COSEE NOW: http://coseenow.net/category/bi-blog/. They're trying to get a conversation going.

By the way, I don't know whether it's occurred to you, or whether you'd rather retain your anonymity -- but your blog could count as a broader impact activity (especially if you were to integrate more discussion of your research).

I'll let the others comment on your moral character -- I'm just a male philosophy professor.

Anonymous said...

"it was more that the email was kind of incoherent. I had absolutely no idea what this person was asking me to do."

That's because artists and scientists speak different languages. You'd better get used to it if you want this interaction to pay off.

female Science Professor said...

Some of my best friends are artists and they are all very articulate people capable of coherent communication, even by email.