Sunday, June 04, 2006

Broader Impacts

I recently finished a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and it was actually great fun putting it all together. I like writing proposals because putting the whole package together really makes you think about what you are doing and why, and I like the challenge of making the most compelling case possible within the space limitations of the proposal (15 pages). I do not like constructing the budget, but the writing part is interesting. I've been very lucky with grants in the past decade or so, and always feel optimistic when I send a new proposal off, even if it is semi-delusional to hope it will be funded the first time it is submitted.

In addition to writing about the scientific work to be done, proposal-writers must also address what is called Broader Impacts. Advising graduate and undergraduate students is a Broader Impact, so that's an easy one, as it's just part of our jobs as teachers and researchers at a university. In the past, I've tried to come up with new and inventive ways to broaden the impact of my research, which is rather more of the curiosity-driven, basic science type of research than the applied kind with obvious and direct benefit to society.

However, no matter how elaborate the broader impact component of my proposals are (e.g., collaborations with K-12 or with local teacher training programs), I always get an 'average' score from reviewers and the panel for BI. I wondered what my colleagues were doing and if they got similar reviews for BI, as it didn't seem like most of them were doing much in the way of novel activities outside their basic research. To my surprise (speaking of being delusional), I found that one of my (male) colleagues got rave BI reviews for saying he was going to supervise an undergraduate in the summer. I supervise undergrads in the summer, and have never gotten any positive comments from reviewers or panels for it. Another (male) colleague got positive comments for saying he was going to incorporate his research in his classes. I do that too! I do not have enough 'data' to figure out if these differences are random, owing to the vagaries of reviewers/panels, but it adds an extra component of uncertainty for me when I write about the broader impacts of my research.

In my more paranoid moments, which are, I think, still relatively infrequent, I wonder if it relates to the fact that teaching is an expected part of women's jobs, but when men write about doing teaching AND research, it seems more special. It would be interesting if funding agencies compiled statistics on how reviewers/panels rated different Broader Impact activities. If there are discrepancies, it is quite clear that they do not result in women being funded at a lower rate than men -- NSF is an extremely fair organization with an excellent track record of supporting women in the physical sciences -- but it might show something interesting about people's perceptions and expectations regarding men and women scientists.

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