What are the Broader Impacts of Broader Impacts?

By Jennifer R. Cohen, Ph.D.

The 2014 Broader Impacts Infrastructure Summit took place a short walk from the National Science Foundation (NSF); but, the impact should spread across the nation. The goals of the Summit were to increase collaboration among Broader Impacts (BI) professionals, enhance BI scholarship, and influence BI policy. Summit attendees encompassed leaders from within the BI field including NSF staff, BI professionals from universities, informal science institutions, and professional organizations. During the three-day Summit, Broader Impacts was discussed during a variety of workshops, panel discussions, posters presentations and informal conversations.

The opening session speakers were Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark and Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, President of The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Cantor asked attendees to remember that innovation requires collaboration. “What would it mean to embed Broader Impacts at the center of the scientific enterprise?” She added that embedding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into community issues is necessary to gain public support and make huge societal impacts. The highly respected diversity champion, Freeman Hrabowski, said that it is unrealistic to blame K-12 educational programs for not retaining STEM majors in college. His simple question to the BI community was “if our highest achieving students leave science, why would we expect the general public to believe in the importance of science?” Emphasizing improved science-society communication, Hrabrowski also noted that success in BI initiatives would be declared once diversity in STEM fields is realized.

better science communication underlies all Broader Impacts efforts - Leshner

Wanda Ward, NSF Head of the Office of International and Integrative Activities, opened the second day of the Summit by presenting NSF’s perspective on BI. Ward reassured the audience that NSF is interested in and excited to see what the BI community is working towards, saying: “We need to be inventive in how we think about BI and simply cannot relent stressing the importance of BI”. France Cordova, NSF Director, and Alan Leshner, American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Board member, each gave inspiring keynotes. In Cordova’s first public speaking engagement since becoming NSF Director, she highlighted the work of NSF as a “sacred trust that every generation makes to the next: that we will push frontiers of science”. Cordova challenged the audience to be public advocates for science and engineering. She encouraged attendees to actively engage with the non-scientific community to increase the general understanding about how relevant NSF research is to their daily lives. Alan Leshner declared, “Science communication is a learned skill, not a natural occurrence”. He argued that a new BI strategy that includes public engagement is critical to making positive changes in BI and bridging the existing divide between science and society. Leshner suggested that STEM professionals “stop communicating at the public and start communicating with the public. Listen and find common ground,” he said. Leshner concluded with the idea that better science communication underlies all BI efforts.

Broader Impacts must be embedded into the institutional culture

Panel discussions on the third day ranged from BI programmatic perspectives to the future of the BI Infrastructure Community. Pramod Khargonekar, Assistant Director for the Directorate of Engineering at NSF noted that what is currently missing from the BI dialogue is “facilitation, leveraging, and coherence” and that possibilities for real impact are “stupendous”. Former NSF-er, Diane Spresser addressed what NSF is looking for in BI statements and encouraged Principal Investigators (PIs) to choose one of the five BI criterion that resonates the most with them. Spresser also emphasized the importance of clearly describing how the proposed research and BI are tightly integrated.

Throughout the Summit, the energy level remained high and many productive conversations were shared. Major themes that arose from the Summit were the following:

For links to presentation slides and poster content please visit the conference website.

Speakers of the Broader Impacts Summit (from left to right): Wanda Ward, Kemi Jona, France Cordova, Alan Leshner, and Susan Renoe.

Dr. Jennifer Cohen completed her Ph.D. in December 2010 and worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow studying prostate cancer in the Brady Urological Research Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Cohen was a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow on assignment at the National Science Foundation. She is passionate about the recruitment, retention, and advancement of underrepresented minorities within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo credit: University of Missouri’s Broader Impacts Network

The citation for this article is:
J.R. Cohen (2015) What are the Broader Impacts of Broader Impacts?
DiverseScholar 6:2

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Published 31-Dec-2015