Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Determinants of Broader Impacts Activities: A Survey of NSF-Funded Investigators

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Determinants of Broader Impacts Activities: A Survey of NSF-Funded Investigators

Article excerpt

Background and Objectives

An enduring image of academia is that of an ivory tower, disconnected from the messy problems of the world. It is a recurring complaint that the primacy of basic research and the academy's emphasis on abstract theory has eroded higher educations connection to the world, isolating scholars from society and making their work obscure or irrelevant to the general public (Barker & Brown, 2009: Gibson, 2006). Decreasing appropriations for higher education heighten the need to convince the public about the value of university research. In response to prodding from Congress, federal funding agencies are increasingly requiring academic research grant proposals to include indicators of public impact that would result in social good.

In 1997, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established a policy that all funding proposals submitted to the agency would be evaluated on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. Broader impacts refer to "specific, desired societal outcomes" (NSF, 2012, p. III-2) such as the participation of underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); enhancing STEM education; public scientific literacy and engagement; and partnerships between academia, industry, and others. According to Arden Bement, former director of the NSF, "The [broader impacts] criterion was established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society" (quoted in Lok, 2010, p. 416).

A national review of the effectiveness of these criteria conducted in 2000 revealed that, while most researchers had little difficulty identifying the intellectual merit of their plans, many struggled to adequately articulate the broader impacts of their proposed investigations (NSF, 2005). The study also found that the broader impacts criterion was consistently weighted less than intellectual merit in the proposal review process and that many in the scientific community were resistant to or dismissive of the requirement (NSF, 2005). The NSF responded with efforts to educate the scientific community about the agency's rationale and expectations for broader impacts. A subsequent national evaluation of the NSF's review criteria conducted in 2010 found that problems with the execution, understanding, and acceptance of the broader impacts criterion persisted, that assessment was unclear and inconsistent, that there was little variety in the type of activities performed to address the broader impacts criterion, and that principal investigators (Pis) needed greater institutional support to respond effectively to this requirement (NSB, 2011).

The purpose of this study was to investigate the factors that shape PI response to the NSF broader impacts criterion. The following research questions guided the study:

1. What are the different types of activity that PIs engage in to meet the broader impacts criterion of NSF-sponsored research?

2. What is the quality of the broader impacts activities, as assessed by PIs using evaluation criteria for the scholarship of engagement?

3. To what extent do PIs' individual characteristics (expertise, epistemology, academic discipline, and rank) and institutional support (climate and resources) for community engagement predict the type of their broader impacts activities?

4. To what extent do PIs' individual characteristics and institutional support predict the quality of their broader impacts activities?

The author gathered survey data to identify the types of broader impacts activities that Pis conduct, and their perceptions of the quality of these activities. The author then determined how much variance in type and quality of activity could be explained by the respondents' personal characteristics and perceptions of institutional support for community engagement. In the survey, community engagement was defined as "The collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity" (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, n. …

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