A recent article in naturenews (Nature, 26 May 2010) discusses NSF's "broader impacts" criterion for proposals and notes that the definition of "broader impacts" is so broad that many PIs are confused. Although NSF does provide a handy list of examples, questions remain about what types and amounts of BI activities are most appropriate for a particular project (and PI).
Although some PIs do innovative BI activities, many do not. Apparently, the #1 BI in proposals submitted to NSF's chemistry division involves the training of graduate students and postdocs; an important goal, but that many of us do anyway. Hence the perennial question: Do BI activities have to go beyond what we usually do, or do we just have to do a better job at the advising/mentoring aspects of our job, or at least say that we will pay more attention to these things?
I don't know, but I found one of the relevant anecdotes in the article strange and unconvincing. The story involves the admirable efforts of a physicist, Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, who conducted a project in 2001:
In many ways, it was typical of the kinds of things that NSF-funded researchers do to fulfil [sic] their broader-impacts requirement. She took three female graduate students on weekly visits to local classrooms, where they spent 45-minutes leading nine- and ten-year-old children in practical activities designed to teach them about electricity and circuits. The visitors also talked about their lab work and careers. In addition, Leslie-Pelecky did something less typical of broader-impacts efforts: she brought along education researchers to study the effect of this interaction on the children's perception of scientists.
Those assessments were startling, she says. After three months, most of the students said that they still weren't sure who these young 'teachers' were – except that they couldn't possibly be scientists. In their minds, scientists were unfriendly, grey-haired old men in white lab coats.
"And that's what I worry about with broader impacts," says Leslie-Pelecky. "There are a lot of people putting time and effort into [these sorts of activities] and they have no idea if they're making any difference or not."
The anecdote ends there, leaving me a bit confused. I can see being concerned that these kids didn't understand that the graduate students were scientists, but that doesn't make me worry about "broader impacts" activities. That makes me even more convinced that we need programs of this kind, perhaps with a different approach to explaining (in this particular case) that the young women were scientists. What else, other than meeting real live examples would convince these kids that scientists don't necessarily fit their image of scientists as cranky old men -- an image that surely discourages a lot of kids, especially girls, from considering science as a career option?
The article mentions the idea that the goal of BI might be better achieved if BI activities were organized at the level of the institution, involving people with expertise in such things, who would then involve certain faculty in particular programs.
There are some aspects of that idea that I like, but I think it would be a mistake to remove all responsibility for BI from the individual investigators. The BI criterion, despite the confusion surrounding it, is a move in the right direction: that of asking investigators to think broadly about their research, to pay attention to the training aspects of our research, and possibly to consider how our research affects the non-academic world.
Furthermore, in the individual project-based system for BI, there are many opportunities for creative integration of the "intellectual" and "broader" aspects of research. A centralized office of people who are experts on "broader impacts"-type activities, but who don't necessarily understand the science and engineering research itself, might not innovate in the same way that individual PIs can.
I also would be concerned about a system in which this centralized office called on "certain faculty" to be involved in BI. I have a feeling I know who these faculty would be and that level of involvement would vary drastically across the institution, with confusion about whether this type of activity was valued by departments, was appropriate for tenure-track faculty etc. etc.
I agree, though, that if the intent is to do effective outreach on a large scale, then that type of BI activity should involve those who have specific expertise and time to devote to such things. Perhaps there is a way to have the best of both types of systems: e.g., to have more institution-based support systems to help PIs with BI activities (some universities have this; some don't), yet without completely relegating the organization and implementation of BI activities to the institution.