The value of outreach as a broader impact

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You might wonder what we scientists are spending your tax money on, and how our work makes a difference. Federal grants from the National Science Foundation specifically require that we, the grant-holders, justify the value of the work in this way. We are evaluated not only on the intellectual merit of our work, but also the broader impacts. NSF just redefined what it means as:

The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

This mandate exists because of the founding vision for NSF, laid out by Vannevar Bush to Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. In a report called Science: The Endless Frontier, Bush argues that

Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.

In the past we have devoted much of our best efforts to the application of such knowledge which has been discovered abroad… New impetus must be given to research in our country. Such impetus can come promptly only from the Government. Expenditures for research in the colleges, universities, and research institutes will otherwise not be able to meet the additional demands of increased public need for research.

The modern justification for basic scientific research is therefore simple: it produces societal benefits including national security, health, and employment. While new discoveries do not each (and should not each) create these opportunities, they make possible the practical advances and applications that then affect society.

The key question is then: what is an individual scientist’s obligation to these broader impacts? Many think that the obligation should be minimal, since any time spent there is time not spent on doing research. Broader impacts are sometimes treated as a necessary but bothersome distraction, an afterthought to a serious research proposal.

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I think that this viewpoint is wrong, but arises from a common focus on broader impacts as scientific outreach: disseminating research results to the general public or to students, or engaging youth in research opportunities. Many university’s grant-writing guidelines (an example) support this viewpoint.

But is outreach effective? I see three major issues. First, most scientists don’t have training or experience with youth or with teaching, challenging the impact of the activity. Second, the scientist may not have deep or serious connections with populations who are interested in or would benefit from such outreach. This can produce a mismatch between supply and demand: too much supply of knowledge from the scientist, and too little demand from the target population. And third, such outreach can be scattered – short bursts of activity directed at a given target, only to disappear as soon as grant funding ceases. This approach may not produce real benefits even if short-term assessment instruments indicate change in attitudes or knowledge.

Therefore I don’t think the average scientist should be in the business of outreach: it can waste both the time of the scientist and the audience, as well as the funding agency’s money. It is doing something that the educational system should be doing better already.

It is true that such outreach does have other benefits – it provides personal connections between an individual scientist and different populations, potentially exposing them to new concepts and experiences that would be impossible to get otherwise. It provides unique opportunities for people to enter into the research world. It forces the scientist to examine the key communicable parts of their work. And it may have other intangible downstream benefits that are harder to predict or measure. Good outreach achieves these unique goals.

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I think there is a better way to use our limited funding for outreach, and maximize the benefit our work creates. Consider the thought experiment: if the goal is to maximize the knowledge and experience of the public (or youth) with regard to scientific careers and progress, would it be more effective to spend this money on the development of programs staffed by trained educators, with consistent funding and relationships with audiences, focused on core concepts, or instead on a scattered matrix of multiple short-term efforts by untrained experts? I think we often do the latter but should prefer the former. This is not to say that every scientist’s individual outreach program is not valuable – simply that anyone proposing one should think very hard about its value and potential impact before moving forward, because good work is hard to accomplish. There are many roads to broader impacts and direct outreach is only one.

I think we should instead built institutions that can pool resources and share in NSF’s societal mandate. We could allow grant-holders to allocate some fraction of each award toward more unified outreach strategies – building larger and longer-term programs that would hire trained educators and build relationships with different populations. I think we could get more for our investment in this way than in the current system where each scientist is left to justify their own work, when in fact we are all working together.

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