Part 2: Broadening your Impact
Welcome to part 2 of 2 on Science Communication and Broader Impacts.
Want to read about science communication? See our first blog post, here
This post will be dedicated to de-mystifying the thing the NSF calls “Broader Impacts”. The intention of requiring Broader Impacts (also known as BI) in National Science Foundation (NSF) grants is to spur public engagement in the sciences. We’re asked to reach beyond our labs, universities, and academic circles to engage the public in our research. However, the “how to” section for the BI often seems to be incomplete or obscure. This leads to frustrated scientists that don’t know where to start in designing a BI. It is my hope that this blog post will provide inspiration and direction to develop your own quality outreach, thereby broadening your impact as a scientist.
- Broader Impacts: because the NSF tells you to -
By implementing BI and engaging the public in what we do, we are showing the public why science is so cool, important, and integral to society. While these goals might not intrinsically motivate all scientists to create quality BI, there are a couple reasons why we all should care.
If people don’t know why science is so awe-inspiring, or how it applies to them, what is their motivation for giving you their money? Dedicating tax money towards basic science only began in the wake of World War II. This is the time that America realized the tremendous impact that scientific advances could make, and thus began the National Science Foundation. As a consequence of this change in policy, a number of wartime inventions were then used to improve our lives, including the widespread use of radar for weather detection, synthetic rubber, and the expansion of computational technology*. In the subsequent decades, we have become detached from the reason behind funding basic science. It has been criticized as a frivolous endeavor, wasting taxpayer money. In fact, basic science has many direct benefits on society (bio-inspiration comes to mind as a great mix between engineering and basic biology) as well as numerous indirect benefits – but I don’t have to convince you of that. When you break it down, it is simple: if the public does not want to fund science, it will no longer be funded. Give them a reason to be excited about science once again! How do we accomplish this? We have to communicate our excitement about the thing that we love, and Broader Impacts are a great way to do this.
As researchers, we are in the unique position to be experts in each of our unique sub-sub-sub-sub-fields. In fact, you probably know a facet of science that nobody else but you knows. Even when you publish your hard work, it is the unfortunate truth that the only people to read your article are probably colleagues working in your similar sub-sub-sub field.
While the intention of publishing is for distribution of our results to scientist in our field, this does not necessarily equate to dissemination of scientific findings beyond the academic community.
Most universities do a great job of providing science journals free of cost to students and faculty. With the recent boom in publications, there are literally thousands of science journals available, and many universities simply cannot afford to pay for subscriptions to all of them. In other words, there are many academics that may not have access to your results. Teachers and educators have much more limited (if any) access to these resources and the general public has even less. While publication of your results is a great first step towards dissemination of your findings, a large portion of journal publications don’t make it beyond the many walls of academia. Therefore, if you don’t tell the public about your cool science discoveries, who will?
Well, possibly the media. In the case of “sexy” or high-profile science, there is a method for distribution of results – science reporters do a great job of synthesizing results of our papers and pull out the most exciting parts for the enjoyment of the public. I would argue that: 1) this represents only a small portion of all of the great work being done, and usually only a subset of fields; and 2) journalists are, first and foremost, journalists! Their goal is not to portray science in all of its nitty-gritty glory (“Woman Picks up Pipette and Fills 96 Wells with a Small Amount of Clear Liquid!” is not such a catchy story…), but instead pick and choose the most sensational research, usually only within a subset of fields. This is a great way to grab public attention, but the downfall of this method of communication is the loss of methods and background behind these discoveries. Readers are often not given the tools to gauge if these discoveries really are backed by rigorous science. If the public is not given the tools to discern what is “good” or “bad” science, how could they be expected to be critical thinkers of scientific issues?
How do we change this? This is where our BI come in. Take a few minutes a day for a few days to research opportunities at your university or your town to engage the public. Chances are there are several teachers, educators, and science centers that would jump at the chance for quality science modules. I’ve found enthusiasm and encouragement in almost every school district and educational center I’ve contacted.
- How to get started -
I have had the great opportunity to speak to a few program officers at the NSF, and while I can’t yet write an all-inclusive “how to” guide for BI, I can give you a few guidelines for the scope expected of you.
First, tie your outreach to your research. This one’s a biggie – it’s great if you want to help out at your local library during reading time, but if your research is not on the impacts of oral story-telling on childhood development, how will that engage the public in your research? If you’re a molecular biologist, you could instead develop a unit to engage middle school students in the wonders of the cell. Integrate the arts into your research by showing students real images of DNA (or other real-life images of your study molecule) compared to art inspired by the inner workings of the cell. Tell them why your molecule is so cool and have them form a hypothesis about what would happen to the organism if it no longer existed. If you’re artistically inclined, you could create a model “cell town” where students design a fictional town based on what they know about the inner workings of the cell. And guess what – inquiry- and engineering-based learning about DNA and organelles is even a Next Generation Science Standard (NGSS) for middle school! Do your research and find a way to tie your research into your outreach while still making educators happy.
Second, you’re allowed – even encouraged – to team up with pre-existing organizations. How do they know you’ll actually be able to design curricula for a school district? If you are a part of an organization that already has ties to several schools, you’re much more likely (in NSF’s eyes) to accomplish such a feat. If there’s no obvious organization with which to team up, my best advice for creating and implementing curricula is to collaborate with an excited teacher, educator or education grad student to create a rigorous science module that also hits a few NGSS standards (or the equivalent in your district). Cross-disciplinary collaborations are a great way to create quality outreach, especially if you team up with someone with complementary skills. If you’re writing an article, you can collaborate with a journalism expert who knows what language will best engage your target audience, and science educators will help you assess the impact of your outreach – this is a great way to quantify your results and will give you data to modify future outreach.
Third, the BI proposed for a multi-million dollar project will be much different from a small grant. You are expected to scale your BI in proportion to the grant, both in time and money spent on it. As a graduate student, you’re not expected to create your own not-for-profit organization specializing in science education, but you are expected to make your outreach your own. Volunteering for pre-designed outreach activities simply won’t cut it. The point is to communicate your research to the public (or at least the main points of it), so ask yourself – is your plan going to leave participants with an impression of the cool research that is going on in your field? If not, you might want to re-think your BI. The point of the BI is to bring your expertise to the public. Any non-scientist can volunteer. What you bring to the table is your unique research expertise. Consider how you can translate that to an impactful BI.
Finally, do what you love. It will be much easier to develop an activity if you’re actually invested in its outcome. Remember, when you share your research through Broader Impacts, you are influencing and shaping the minds of your colleagues, fellow humans, and very often children, who will become the scientists of future generations. If you don’t want to work with children, then build your outreach to work with adults. The best BI utilize the skills and expertise of the PI while pushing beyond their individual abilities by working with collaborators that complement their skills.
Here are a few examples of scientists that do a great job engaging the public in the thing that they love. By no means is this an inclusive list, so feel free to comment with your own examples!
Myrmex – a comic ant-thology
Science News Magazine – a promising magazine focusing on science outreach
Want more ideas? Check out all of our speakers!