US National Science Foundation on science and communicating about its impact on society and OECD report on innovation as a societal effort

On the heels of last week”s posting about the importance of a broad-ranging approach to science and innovation (See: Rob Annan’s [Don’t leave Canada behind blog] latest post, Innovation isn’t just about science funding and Poetry, molecular biophysics and innovation in Canada on this blog), I found these and other related issues being discussed elsewhere. (Side note: I’d love to hear from anyone who might be able to comment on these issues as they arise in other countries. I get most of my information from Canadian, US, and UK sources so it does tend to be limited.)

Dave Bruggeman at Pasco Phronesis highlights an editorial and an article by Corie Lok about the US National Science Foundation and its efforts to have scientists demonstrate or communicate the broader societal impacts of their research work by making it a requirement in their grant application. From Dave’s posting,

Do read the pieces [published in the journal Nature], because I think the point about developing the infrastructure to support research on broader impacts and the implementation of those broader impacts is a necessary step. With a support system in place, researchers may be more inclined to take the criterion seriously. With infrastructure better able to measure impacts, science advocates may have better data from which to advance their causes. …

While there was some mention of efforts in the U.K. and the European Commission to do similar work in making more explicit the connections between scientific research and broader impacts, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a bit more effort to make a stronger connection of lessons learned both for other countries and for the U.S. This is particularly true if new U.K. Science and Universities Minister Willets goes through with a campaign promise to give the Research Excellence Framework a more thorough review.

I encourage you to read Dave’s posting in its entirety as he adds thoughtful commentary and information about the situation in the US while I focus on other aspects of the issue, from the Nature editorial,

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is unique among the world’s science-funding agencies in its insistence that every proposal, large or small, must include an activity to demonstrate the research’s ‘broader impacts’ on science or society. This might involve the researchers giving talks at a local museum, developing new curricula or perhaps forming a start-up company. [emphases mine]

The requirement’s goal is commendable. It aims to enlist the scientific community to help show a return on society’s investment in research and to bolster the public’s trust in science — the latter being particularly important given the well-organized movements currently attacking concepts such as evolution and climate change.

I find the notion that starting up a new company is a way of demonstrating research’s broader societal impact rather unexpected and something I like and dislike in equal measure. I can certainly see where it would encourage the kind of innovation that the Canadian government wishes to foster and I can see the benefits. On the other hand, I think there is a very strong focus on the almighty buck to the exclusion of other social benefits as per “show a return on society’s investment in research,” in the editorial excerpt’s 2nd paragraph. You’ll note that ‘fostering trust’ is second and it’s in the service of ensuring that cherished concepts are not attacked. (Aside: While Nature uses evolution and climate change for its examples here, scientists have fought bitterly over other cherished concepts which have over time proved to be incorrect. For years geneticists dismissed some 98% of the human genome as ‘junk DNA’ . It turns out they were wrong. [see this article in New Scientist for more about the importance of ‘junk DNA’])

As for the focus on ‘society’s return on its research investment’, there’s this from Corie Lok’s Nature article,

Research-funding agencies are forever trying to balance two opposing forces: scientists’ desire to be left alone to do their research, and society’s demand to see a return on its investment. [emphasis mine]

The European Commission, for example, has tried to strike that balance over the past decade by considering social effects when reviewing proposals under its various Framework programmes for research. And the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced last year that, starting in 2013, research will be assessed partly on its demonstrable benefits to the economy, society or culture.

But no agency has gone as far as the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which will not even consider a proposal unless it explicitly includes activities to demonstrate the project’s ‘broader impacts’ on science or society at large. “The criterion was established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society,” explains Arden Bement, director of the NSF in Arlington, Virginia.

Here there seems to be a softening of the “return on investment” focus on money and the economy to include “broader impacts” on society and culture. Since the phrase ‘return on investment’ comes from the financial services sector, the meaning will default, unless carefully framed, to financial and economic considerations only.

I guess the question I have is, how do we value broader impacts? I’m a scientist, Get me out of here is a public engagement programme I’ve mentioned before (towards the end of this posting). How do you measure the outcome for a programme where kids stay after school to chat online with scientists about science? Sure you can measure how many kids participate and whether more of them indicate an interest in studying science but these are short-term. There are other possibilities such as increased science literacy over their lifetimes or going on to become a scientist but that will be at least 10 years away. There are also other less directly measurable possibilities (such as using an idea from an online science chat to create a story or an art piece decades after the fact) but these are in the long term and don’t lend themselves easily to measurement.

One other issue, I’d like to touch on is the scientists themselves having difficulty with the concept of ‘broader implications’. I sometimes ask them something along this line, where is your work going to be used or what are the practical applications. The answers can baffle me as I receive a very stripped down response which doesn’t answer the question adequately for someone (me) who isn’t an expert colleague. As I’m usually interviewing by email, I don’t have the option of asking all of the followup questions (often, more than one would be needed) to extract the information.

I’m hopeful that the situation will change with projects such as Terry at the University of British Columbia, from the About page listing a special course,


What is ASIC200? Full course details can be found [here], but here’s a gander at the general course description:

“Human society confronts a range of challenges that are global in scope. These changes threaten planetary and local ecosystems, the stability and sustainability of human societies, and the health and well being of human individuals and communities. The natural and human worlds are now interacting at the global level to an unprecedented degree. Responding to these global issues will be the greatest challenge facing human society in the 21st century. In this course students will explore selected global issues from the perspective of both the physical and life sciences and the social sciences and humanities. The fundamental philosophy of the course is that global issues cannot be fully understood or addressed without a functional literacy in both the Sciences and the Arts. [emphasis mine] In this course, students will develop the knowledge and the practical skills required to become engaged citizens in the local, national, and international civil society dialogue on global issues.”

I like this approach as it requires that arts students also extend their range; it’s not just scientists doing all the work to expand understanding. Even the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) is getting in on the act with recommendations for more innovative societies. From Key Findings (p. 9) in The OECD Innovation Strategy: Getting a Head Start on Tomorrow,

Formal education is the basis for forming human capital, and policy makers should ensure that education systems help learners to adapt to the changing nature of innovation from the start. This requires curricula and pedagogies that equip students with the capacity to learn and apply new skills throughout their lives. Emphasis needs to be placed on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, communication, user orientation and teamwork, in addition to domain-specific and linguistic skills. [emphasis mine]

The recommendation is inclusive and not aimed at a specific group such as scientists, although the Key Findings and the Executive Summary (which can be found on this page) seem most heavily invested in developing recommendations for business/market/entrepreneurial innovation rather than the sciences or the humanities.

1 thought on “US National Science Foundation on science and communicating about its impact on society and OECD report on innovation as a societal effort

  1. Pingback: Canada’s new copyright bill (C-32) and OECD’s take on intellectual property rights and innovation « FrogHeart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *