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National Science Board Reviews Broader Impact Criterion

Science museums and their audiences often benefit from sub-awards provided by research centers which choose to address the NSF Broader Impact Criterion through partnerships for education outreach.   Therefore, the National Science Board’s current review of this criterion (commonly known as “BIC”) alongside its companion criterion “Intellectual Merit,” is of particular interest to the science museum and entire informal science education community.

After reviewing comments from 5,100 stakeholders, the NSB has decided to retain both criteria, but to revise them in order to clarify their intent and “connection to NSF’s core principles” (NSF-11-42, available at http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/publications/2011/06_mrtf.jsp).

As stated by the NSB, these core principles and national goals are led by concerns for global economic and workforce competitiveness, and for the first time allow that “broader impacts” may be achieved “through the research itself.”  This phrase has some worrying that a “BIC loophole” has been created, for it allows that the research itself may be “enough” to enhance U.S economic and workforce competitiveness, without the research team needing to specifically incorporate synergistic activities addressing concomitant K-12 education, diversity, or public engagement goals.

On July 13, AAAS submitted a letter to the Chairman of the NSB strongly objecting to what I am here referring to as the “BIC loophole.”  AAAS said, “While increasing knowledge serves a public good, it is not always clear how publicly funded research can produce broader impacts unless it is applied and/or widely communicated beyond the scholarly community. The current language appears to offer researchers an excuse not to engage in a more thoughtful consideration of the criterion.”   [11_07_13nsfmeritreview.pdf, available at aaas.org]

The AAAS also calls for a change in terminology from “public engagement with science and technology” to “public engagement with scientists and engineers,” in an effort to “humanize” the notion of public engagement.  In my opinion, both should be stated; science museum professionals and informal science educators are people skilled at bridging the communication gap that often exists between public audience and scholarly researchers, and we also want to provide opportunities for public audiences to go “hands-on” with science and technology.

In my reading of the new BIC draft guidelines, they do provide much-needed tightening in terms of assessing the rationale and merit of the proposed activities, the adequacy of the resources provided for them, and the qualifications of the team charged with carrying them out (recommendations I contributed as a stakeholder commentator); however, the formulation of the criterion also states that the primary goal of the BIC activities must be to address “national goal(s)," which are listed without commentary.

AAAS also questioned the emphasis on the particular list of “national goals” provided; wondering why, for example, they include “partnerships with industry,” but not professional societies, state and federal governmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations; also why they include “improved K-12 STEM education and teacher development,” but do not include mention of teacher development alongside “improved undergraduate STEM education.”  AAAS found the list of national goals “overly narrow and arbitrary, absent a clear rationale,” suggesting that others merited inclusion such as, “increased access by all Americans to the products of science and engineering,” or “a healthy environment.”

The AAAS letter was delivered just prior to the close of a second round of public commentary. We’ll see, when the NSB next chooses to publish the results of this second-round of commentary and corresponding revisions to the draft, whether they will specifically address any of these issues, and, most critically, whether that gaping BIC loophole will be sewn back up again.