Broader Impact of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010

As nicely summarized by Jeffrey Mervis in ScienceInsider, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (H.R.5116) has passed the House on its third attempt. The Senate still needs to take up the measure, and then any differences would need to be reconciled. While this bill authorizes $84 billion for research, education, and other programs over the next 5 years at the NSF (which gets $40B), the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, another less welcome bit of NSF authorization is include. Namely, the new Broader Impact review criteria:

SEC. 214. BROADER IMPACTS REVIEW CRITERION.

(a) Goals- The Foundation shall apply a Broader Impacts Review Criterion to achieve the following goals:

    (1) Increased economic competitiveness of the United States.

    (2) Development of a globally competitive STEM workforce.

    (3) Increased participation of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM.

    (4) Increased partnerships between academia and industry.

    (5) Improved pre-K-12 STEM education and teacher development.

    (6) Improved undergraduate STEM education.

    (7) Increased public scientific literacy.

    (8) Increased national security.

(b) Policy- Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director shall develop and implement a policy for the Broader Impacts Review Criterion that–

    (1) provides for educating professional staff at the Foundation, merit review panels, and applicants for Foundation research grants on the policy developed under this subsection;

    (2) clarifies that the activities of grant recipients undertaken to satisfy the Broader Impacts Review Criterion shall–

      (A) to the extent practicable employ proven strategies and models and draw on existing programs and activities; and

      (B) when novel approaches are justified, build on the most current research results;

    (3) allows for some portion of funds allocated to broader impacts under a research grant to be used for assessment and evaluation of the broader impacts activity;

    (4) encourages institutions of higher education and other nonprofit education or research organizations to develop and provide, either as individual institutions or in partnerships thereof, appropriate training and programs to assist Foundation-funded principal investigators at their institutions in achieving the goals of the Broader Impacts Review Criterion as described in subsection (a); and

    (5) requires principal investigators applying for Foundation research grants to provide evidence of institutional support for the portion of the investigator’s proposal designed to satisfy the Broader Impacts Review Criterion, including evidence of relevant training, programs, and other institutional resources available to the investigator from either their home institution or organization or another institution or organization with relevant expertise.

Actually, the new first and eighth goals are not far off from the NSF’s original intent: “The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 ‘to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…’ ” Who knew?

Nature’s Corie Lok recently took a look at the NSF’s broader impact requirement, which began in 1997 (and started to be enforced in 2002), though this was based on prior NSF criteria. Even so …

Many NSF-funded researchers find the foundation’s definition of broader impacts to be, perhaps unsurprisingly, broad, and frustratingly vague. …

Because it lacks conceptual clarity, the broader-impacts requirement often leaves researchers unsure about what to include in their proposals, and leads to inconsistencies in how reviewers evaluate applications. …

To make matters worse, the NSF has made little attempt to systematically track how its broader-impacts requirements are being met, or how much grant money is being spent in the process. Nor does it have a system in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the various projects.

Indeed, how does one track the impact of individual NSF-funded investigators on achieving the new first and eighth goals (increased economic competitiveness and national security)? It seems, at least, help may be on the way:

In March, the NSF’s oversight body, the National Science Board, launched a task force to examine how broader impacts can be improved. Chaired by Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC, the task force is not expected to make its recommendations until 2011.

Perhaps the task force will concur with suggestions that remove the burden of broader impacts from individual investigators:

Yet such ideas lead to a more fundamental question. Is having every principal investigator working individually on broader impacts — for which many are inexperienced and untrained — the most efficient way of achieving the maximum effect?

Some scholars say no. In a paper published last year, Warren Burggren, a biologist and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Texas in Denton, writes that the job of implementing broader impacts should fall to the researcher’s institution, not to the researcher him or herself. The institution, be it college, department or centre, would pool a portion of the NSF grants obtained by its members and hire the professionals needed to broaden impacts effectively. Scientists should still be involved, but the coordination would happen at the institutional level. “I think it will be more efficient, because you’ve got people doing what they’re trained for,” says Burggren.

Another idea, suggested by Barry Bozeman, a science-policy expert at the University of Georgia in Athens, is for the NSF to create specific research programmes with strong broader-impact goals around areas in which the effects are important and obvious, such as climate change. Bozeman says that the NSF is already following this strategy with awards that, for example, promote the recruitment and retention of women in academic science.

Imagine that … having everyone concentrate on doing what they’re trained to do … talk about making America competitive in science again.

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6 Comments »

  1. SaG said

    I wonder how long before someone gets the idea to apply this to NIH grants?

  2. BB said

    SaG, if so, at my place we’re screwed on point 5 (evidence of institutional support).

  3. writedit said

    Oof. So we now have Science and Technology for America’s Reinvestment: Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science, or STAR METRICS to “monitor the impact of federal science investments on employment, knowledge generation, and health outcomes.” At least the NIH is off the hook with regard to national defense … so far.

  4. M. S. AtKisson said

    Sorry to be late to this party, but the NIH “Narrative” on the SF424 submission serves along the lines of NSF Broader Impacts, just on a more limited scope. NIH’s mandates are different from NSF’s, since it’s part of the Public Health Service. On paper PHS398 submissions, the equivalent to the “Narrative” is the box under the Description box called “Relevance,” and that’s the point: Plain language on the relevance of the proposed project to public health. (And anyone who put in an ARRA grant had to deal with the impact on the economy question, right?)

    Anyway, I put in a comment about Broader Impacts, and what I think may play into the history of how they came to be included in the review criteria, to FSP’s blog here. (Not trying to promote, just not wanting to re-write, and it’s relevant to this discussion, I think.) My biggest beef is when applicants and reviewers both just use it as a code word for including underrepresented minorities.

  5. [...] in the meantime, but I’m glad the NSF is starting out from a good position at least. The new broader impact criteria, I’m less excited about [...]

  6. [...] and (especially) broader impacts of proposed research are assessed. The problem is mainly with the broader impacts, which seem to keep growing broader and [...]

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