We've all seen it. Most of us have even written one. I'm talking
about that ``clearly marked paragraph'' in the summary page of each
and every NSF proposal:
Broader Impacts This proposal has far-reaching impacts. As part of my program, I will develop a new graduate course entitled My Research Area, that will introduce students to cutting-edge research in Proposal Topic X, Y, and Z. I will also incorporate these lectures into some of my Undergrad Courses. Special attention will be given to recruiting Women and Minorities. And I may even talk to A High School Student once in a while. Yada yada.As often written, these broader impact sections, like the one above, read like the teaching section of my job description. So then, what is a broader impact, really? How can we improve our impact? And, most importantly, why should we, as a community, care?
I am now on an airplane returning from an NSF summit organized by Tracy Camp, Juan Gilbert, Judy Goldsmith and Samir Khuller (kudos to you) that discussed just that. The summit consisted of about 100 members of the CISE research community, and the purpose was to collect input from us about what we want broader impacts to be and how they should work. My working group was tasked with fleshing out Broader Impact #4, ``Broad Dissemination and ...'' (who knew, there are in fact five types of broader impacts, contained in a bulleted list in some NSF document from 2007, and yes, they all have long unmemorable bureaucratic names). Here's what we had to say (disclaimer: all comments are colored by my own personal biases and are not intended to accurately reflect the opinions of the participants etc. etc.):
- What is a broader impact? All sorts of really cool things count here. In our group on broader dissemination, we came up with: blogging, YouTube video clips, maintaining wiki pages, writing a textbook, a popular science book, directing a play about science, designing a museum exhibit building computers with kids, with senior citizens, talking directly to the curious public in Scientific Cafe, with K-12 at National Lab Days, talking to the media, writing your representatives... Many of these have been done before, and I think there will be a link on the NSF website sometime soon giving pointers to some wonderful examples. More generally, a good broader impact is realistic and, ideally, measurable — points which ought to be discussed in the proposal.
- How can we as a community help our individual members improve their impact? Some people have an internal fire that is fueled by helping others, and for those we can enable their impacts by simply making it easier to give. For this, the NSF will provide lists of ideas, and several programs like National Lab Days and BPC further help by providing ``match-making services'' that give a searchable interface to existing outreach opportunities (looking around there, I found a local high school that wants someone to come talk about careers in science, for example). Then there are also carrots and sticks. The carrots are higher weight for broader impacts in the review process as well as the tenure process (ummmm, I'll believe it when I see it); and the sticks are holding PIs accountable for their proposed impacts through annual reports alongside a threat of withheld funding upon failure to attempt said impacts (spank spank).
- Why should we care? If you haven't figured it out by now, I am an incredibly cynical and suspicious individual. While I personally care about certain types of community service, I nonetheless felt that broader impacts in a proposal were simply a nod to Congress, a necessity that allows our elected representatives to justify giving us hundreds of millions of tax dollars, and of minimal importance in funding decisions and career success. I now see that, while there is a certain grain of truth in my snide remarks, the NSF is on a serious mission to change all this, and we should be too. We have a passion, and as privileged members of humanity, we have a duty to share our passion with those around us, thereby enriching their lives as ours were enriched for us by circumstance and chance and past generations of great givers.