Broader Impacts, Efficiency Considerations

Here is a link to the Table of Contents for the 2009 special issue of the philosophy journal Social Epistemology as well as a pdf of Burggren's article.

Burggren's argument should resonate with faculty, who, like Burggren, may question NSF's premise that all scientists and engineers ought to engage in broader impacts activities. Isn't it fundamentally inefficient, he suggests, to ask scientists and engineers not trained in broader impacts activities to engage in them? (And won't it take away from their science?)  Does the goal of "integrating research and education" require that the integration take place at the level of the individual?  Burggren suggests alternative models that may increase both the efficiency of broader impacts activities and the quality of research that NSF funds.

Burggren suggests there are three types of players:

1.  STEM specialists ("pure" scientists, who do not attempt BI)

2.  BI specialists (trained in outreach and education and prepared to evaluate both)

3.  STEM-BI "generalists" (one individual who does both.)

Rather than giving generalists all the funding, which seems to be what NSF is doing now, might it be more efficient and effective to give half to each specialist?

In this article, he proposes two models:

I.  Encouraging specialists.  Universities can encourage individuals to specialize (#1 and #2 above), but the blending of the two expertises (to broaden the impact of funded science) should happen at the level of the university so that the two strands are represented in "the aggregate" but each individual is relieved of the burden of being both (#3).

II.  Encouraging generalists, but providing assistance. Alternately, universities can encourage individuals to generalize (#3), but can make their efforts more efficient and effective with concerted institutional assistance.  The following scenario (from pp. 234-235 of Burggren's article) sounds to me like NEAGEP or CAITE, which are perhaps the best, most sustainable efforts of our campus, and the NSF's best investment in BI.

In this approach, broader impact activities would be coordinated at the departmental

or college level. Thus, as just one of many possible examples, an academic unit commits

to develop a research experience programme for inner-city middle school children. The

programme hires a professional programme director, skilled in all of the management

aspects of such a programme—recruiting, transportation, permissions, budgeting—as

well as developing the actual content of the programme. The Director is paid from

the cumulative contributions of the department’s NSF discovery grants. This requires

that each proposal from this department requests funds specifically to support this

activity. Rather than viewing this as a “tax” on their grant, I predict that faculty,

especially less experienced junior faculty, will be grateful for the opportunity to offer

up funding from their proposals and then gain involvement in a professionally run,

high-impact activity that also represents a broader impact activity of the highest level.


Imho, if top scientists do not engage with BI activities, the activities get branded as "second tier."  With true faculty involvement in institutionally supported BI activities, they can remain first tier, but not at the expense of squandering science talent on management and logistics.

Questioning efficiency and return on investment inevitably leads to the related question:

What is the recommended budget allocation for Broader Impacts? 

Very few researchers envision spending half of their grant on education, diversity, and outreach.  But how much is enough?  Zero BI budget is too little, but is 10% adequate?  The ERC (Engineering Research Center) association seems to suggest as much as 1/4 to 1/3 for an ERC. (  But what is included in that total?  Mentoring graduate students and post-docs?? Only K-12 or other outreach?  I don't think NSF knows--see informal poll reported in Burggren's article on page 226 for more reflection on this question.

The BI dialogue is picking up steam at UMass (as it is around the country), and we welcome new voices and new suggestions. I work with a national organization that we founded in 2013. I'm on the program committee that came together and among other activities, got NSF Research Network money for: the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (Susan Renoe of UMissouri, PI).  At UMass, I work with constituencies all over campus, loosely united through the Faculty Senate Council on Engagement and Outreach, on which I serve.  The faculty and staff who work together through the Council aim to fulfill NSF's mandate that universities establish "infrastructure" (as envisioned somewhat in the Burggren article I recommended).  This infrastructure consists of a number of "platform projects," like the Office of Civic Engagement and Service Learning, CNS' Eureka! (with Girls, Inc.), CoE's Diversity Programs Office, or Mort Sternheim's STEM Education Institute, that run programs on a sustainable basis for which interested faculty can provide "content" and add value to give their own work "broader impact."  I am in contact with about a dozen such program "hubs" that are like a local Broader Impacts Network, although I haven't yet formalized it as such. The Office of Research Development is committed to furthering the discussion and helping create the frameworks within which individuals can design impactful and efficient activities based on their research.  Let's talk!


Back to Broader Impacts home