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The NSF’s Broader Impact Criterion and Educational Initiatives

Posted by on Friday, July 23, 2010 in News.

Nature recently published an article titled “Science for the Masses” that considered some of the problems with the National Science Foundation’s requirement that NSF grant proposal address a “broader impact” criterion. NSF director Arden Bement is quoted as saying, “The criterion was established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society,” but Nature reports that many scientists find the broader-impact requirement “baffling.”

Researchers can meet the requirement in any of several different ways—educational initiatives at the K12 or university level, supporting shared research infrastructure, sharing research results with policy-makers, working with museums and similar organizations, and creating start-up companies. Most of the options require skills not part of researchers’ training, which can make it difficult for grant writers to craft proposals that meet the broader-impact requirement.

“Researchers often end up repackaging what they’re already doing. ‘Overwhelmingly,’ says [division director for NSF chemistry Luis] Echegoyen, ‘the number one broader impact that most people in the chemistry division are using is “training graduate students and postdocs.”‘”

The Nature article notes a few creative approaches to the broader impact criterion, including the creation of  nanoscience visualizations for teachers by researchers at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute and workshops on chemistry topics for patients at a children’s hospital unable to attend school by faculty and students at Stanford University. While individual researchers have found meaningful ways to meet the broader impact criterion, Nature points out that systematic support for these initiatives is in its infancy:

“One problem is that the kind of support network that researchers take for granted — working with collaborators, sharing ideas and advice, learning from published results, attending conferences — is still rudimentary when it comes to broader impacts.”

One initiative cited by the Nature article that’s helping to meet this need is the NSF-funded Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), a network of six campuses, including Vanderbilt, with the goal of preparing future STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) faculty. CIRTL’s approach is twofold: CIRTL provides workshops and consultations with STEM faculty interested in assistance in planning broader-impact activities (particularly ones involving educational initiatives), and CIRTL provides professional development for the graduate students and postdocs on PIs’ research teams that are tasked with carrying out the broader-impact activities.

Here at Vanderbilt, the CFT is an active component of the CIRTL initiative, offering grant consultations for researchers seeking assistance in incorporating educational initiatives in their grant proposals and providing a variety of training opportunities for grad students and postdocs that can build the capacity needed to implement those educational activities. If you’re a Vanderbilt faculty member and would like to find out how the CFT might help you address the NSF’s broader impact criterion, please give us a call at 322-7290.

Image: “Molecule display” by Flickr user net_efekt / Creative Commons licensed

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