University-based STEM research: A primer
In the United States, most basic research in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (the STEM subject areas) takes place in university laboratories, and much of it is supported by research grants from the federal government.
The federal government allocates its research budget among some twenty different science agencies, scattered among the major federal departments, and, with varying amounts of guidance and oversight, allows those agencies to plan more detailed program priorities. Major U.S. federal scientific research agencies include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the Environmental Protection Agency. These agencies are mixing bowls, where top-down federal initiatives and priorities result in program solicitations that meet bottom-up talent, ideas, and specific funding proposals from STEM researchers.
The grant solicitation and peer review process encourages researchers to explore new scientific and engineering terrain in the service of social, national, and economic priorities set by the White House, Congress, and to some extent, the advice and consensus of leaders of the science and technology community. Such endeavors thrive in universities, which are more likely than corporate environments to foster an open-ended atmosphere of creative and intellectual freedom and peer-reviewed publication of approaches and findings. While some corporate and private laboratories do continue to support basic research, most of them must prioritize their efforts to those projects that seem most likely to promise to their core business a reasonably profitable and short term return on the R&D investment.
University-based researchers are often quite dependent on state and federal grants to provide the specialized tools and equipment required for advanced research. Wealthier universities can also sometimes look to alumni and donors to fund large new laboratories and the necessary infrastructure to attract top faculty and students, as well as new grant funding. Faculty and universities can and do sometimes benefit financially from licensing of the “IP” (intellectual property) produced in their laboratories, and sometimes they generate “spin-off” start-up companies. Most university researchers, however, are motivated by the freedom to pursue their own research pathways, and the possibility of achieving significant discoveries or breakthroughs that can provide meaningful outcomes. The rewards include the honor and security of gaining a professorship and lifetime tenure, the opportunity to work in an intellectually-stimulating and creative environment, and the satisfaction that can come from mentoring and nurturing young scientists. These graduate and post-doctoral students, constitute the primary workforce in research universities, and many of whom are supported by their professor’s research grants as they gain the skills and knowledge they need to establish their own careers.
Research is increasingly interdisciplinary. Universities are typically divided into schools, like schools of arts and sciences, schools of medicine and law, schools of engineering and applied science. The particular divisions and structures vary from university to university; and, within each school, there may be any number of departments. Traditionally, based on the old European model, universities have divvied up the sciences into distinct disciplines of chemistry, biology, geology, and physics. However, these distinctions have blurred, as the gaps between domains of scientific knowledge have begun to fall away, and more interdisciplinary fields have come to the forefront. Common examples include biotechnology, climate sciences, and nanotechnology. The trends for the past couple of decades have also led to greater integration between university science and engineering departments, as the quest for scientific knowledge has become more intimately bound with the development of new tools, materials, and techniques for obtaining and harnessing that knowledge. Many research universities now host specialized centers and institutes that bring together researchers from many fields to address a particular set of interdisciplinary topics; these centers often result from a large gift to the university by a donor, or the winning of a large center award from a federal or state science agency.
Competition for grants and awards is stiff. One thing that distinguishes most science and engineering faculty from senior faculty in the arts and humanities, is that they must continually compete for research grant funding. In order to remain competitive and to attract the best and the brightest students, science and engineering researchers need to secure funding for constant renewal of increasingly complex state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, as well as funding for the students carrying out their research programs. In contrast to most arts and humanities students who must take out loans to achieve their advanced training and qualifications, science and engineering graduate students are typically paid for their efforts while pursuing advanced and post-doctoral degrees. In order to succeed, therefore, science and engineering faculty must have an entrepreneurial side – moonlighting as grant writers and submitting frequent proposals for research support, mostly to federal science agencies, though there are some private foundations that also support research. The title used most commonly used for the leader of a grant-funded research project is “Principal Investigator,” or “PI,” which reflects the fundamental notion of scientific research as a disciplined, evidence-based quest for knowledge. A single grant may support portions of time (or “calendar months”) for one to several years of work for a PI and his or her associated students and colleagues; it must be submitted up to a year in advance of the intended start date. Most funding agencies have strict guidelines, submission policies and deadlines, and rely on a peer-review process for determining which proposals are most worthy of awards. Peer review panels are made up of investigators in the same or closely-related fields, and they judge each proposal based on factors such as its intellectual merit, significance to the field, experimental design, likelihood of producing useful results, feasibility of budget and timeline, the investigator’s track record and demonstrated ability to manage a research program, broader impacts,and the project’s potential benefit to society. The scientific review process is expensive, time-consuming, and imperfect, but it strives to offer a merit-based approach, largely free of political influence or favoritism. Investigators who have won previous research awards very often serve as reviewers for new rounds of awards from the same agency. Their service is somewhat expected and it also helps them keep up to date with what is happening in the field. Besides direct research grants, faculty may also compete for funds specifically designated for training graduate students, developing new curricula, fostering new collaborations, and increasing diversity.
Science is a competitive profession in other ways, too. Research faculty must operate within an atmosphere of competition for grants, tenure, laboratory space, committee placement, prestige, and the job security of fully endowed professorships. For tenured positions, universities seek researchers who are not only brilliant and widely respected in their field for advancing knowledge through successful research programs, but who are also adept at winning grants and awards, chalking up patents, publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals, attracting students, gratifying donors, serving on committees and advisory boards, speaking at conferences, and attracting good press. Prospective senior faculty must also prove themselves excellent teachers and mentors, and they must demonstrate an ethos of service to their professional research field, the university, and its broader community. Despite the pressures to compete, most scientists strive to maintain open sharing and communication of ideas and results and to foster an atmosphere of intellectual and academic freedom.
Universities have internal systems for the administrative aspects of campus research.
Most research universities have offices of “sponsored research,” which set institutional policies governing federal grant proposals and submissions, administrative procedures, budgeting, reporting, auditing, personnel management, and compliance with federal standards. Typically, prospective PIs must submit proposals and budgets for internal review before they are due at the granting agency. It is not unusual for faculty with adjacent labs to be competing for grants under the same federal program, and to first have to win an internal university competition for the right to submit their proposal to the funding agency. A university dean may decide that the institution as a whole should not submit more than two research proposals to the same program.
Research center funding is becoming more common.
In recent years, particularly in the context of large-scale research initiatives that require the collaboration of highly interdisciplinary teams, several federal science funding agencies have moved toward the funding of research “centers,” assemblages of teams of researchers and their students, led by co-principal investigators and other senior faculty, with research programs planned and budgeted three to six years into the future. The center structure is intended to promote collaborative work at the fertile intersections between disciplines, where innovation is mostly likely to take root. Center funding can spur interdisciplinary creativity as well as empower individual investigators with greater flexibility to shift their focus with new colleagues as the work develops. Centers can sometimes spot and more quickly and nimbly provide “seed grants” for small high risk/high potential projects. Center students benefit from their broader exposure to a variety of investigative approaches, and the pooling of funds can provide for a more robust menu of enrichment activities, such as graduate seminars, conferences, and mentoring opportunities.
Centers sometimes include research teams from more than one university; geography is not necessarily a limiting factor. The principal investigator’s university is considered the lead institution and the partnering institutions operate in tandem either through direct collaborative awards or through sub-awards from the lead university. Centers generally require a governance structure with an executive committee, an advisory board, and internal procedures for allocating pools of discretionary funds, within guidelines allowed by the granting agency. Center administrators have to file detailed annual reports on their research progress, expenditures, publications, teaching and mentoring duties, and other outreach activities. Their year-to-year progress is monitored during periodic site visits by program officers and sometimes by review panel members. Center investigators are also sometimes invited to “reverse site visits,” meaning they travel to the funding agency’s headquarters to present their work, answer critical questions, and receive feedback and guidance. A following year of funding is never assumed; it must be requested and approved, following a year-end report and/or site visit, and it can be vulnerable to judgments of poor performance and subject to changes in the congressional budget and allocation process to individual science funding agencies. Nevertheless, most multi-year awards are approved through each year, and five-year center awards are often eligible for renewal for an additional five year term. The NSF’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers (MRSECs) have six-year award periods, which have been renewable for multiple terms.
The research center advantage
Because research centers are better funded, longer-lived, larger, and more stable enterprises than individual research programs, it is particularly advantageous for science museums to seek opportunities to build relationships with the researchers who organize and lead them and with their education outreach coordinators.
Research center faculty leaders are typically the consensus-builders who know how to form productive coalitions and to mediate between the needs of funders, university administrators, department heads, research colleagues, and often other institutions involved in center or network collaborations. Quite often, they are also visionaries who consistently reach beyond their own particular research interests to grasp larger educational, social, and economic perspectives. They may be particularly aware of the critical importance of advancing science education and engaging with a science-literate public.
The larger pool of funding available to research centers and their longer operational timeline allow for a better-organized education outreach effort and a more efficient use of collective resources. It may allow for a more specialized investment in education and outreach, including support for university-based education and outreach coordinators. It may also allow for a sub-award to support a long-term education and outreach partnership with a local school, a science museum, or other science education organization. Many university-based research centers are large enough to support both an internal “education and outreach coordinator” and a science museum public engagement partner. This is the best of both worlds, since together the team can develop a creative menu of approaches involving faculty and students, bridging the two worlds to reach to a third, the public. These may even include a structured program of professional development in science communication and education outreach for research center students that will help them build their own professional careers.
A five to ten year education outreach partnership between a science museum and a research center provides fertile ground in which to set down roots, expand and grow. Relationships deepen, the work improves, and the partners reach broader audiences. They have time to take stock, evaluate, and improve their practices. They can cultivate new alliances and links to schools and community organizations. They also have time to share their experience and successful practices with others in the field.
The clear advantage of forming partnerships with research centers should not deter science museums from also pursuing more modest education and outreach partnerships with individual researchers or with small teams of researchers. These collaborations can be enormously fruitful for all concerned, especially if the science center already has staff and infrastructure available for working with the scientists and their students on a short-term or project-by-project basis. Individual investigators typically plan to do their educational outreach themselves or delegate it to their students. They may budget for some materials for outreach and offer to give talks or volunteer at science museums, however, they will typically assume that the science museums staff and facilities come without cost. Yet, even short-term collaborations do require science museum staff time and resources – for the planning and marketing of events and activities, and for training, guidance and support for researchers not familiar to working with school and public audiences. The unfortunate truth is that education outreach collaborations with researchers can end up consuming more in staff time and resources than they contribute to the science education mission.
The good news is that successful education outreach collaborations build their own momentum. A successful collaboration can motivate research partners to include financial support for these activities into their next round of proposals. As the partnership develops and demonstrates rewards, these investigators are more likely to speak with you about future collaborations on projects for which proposals are still in development. And, if they become involved in a larger center proposal, you may be able to work together to plan a more robust collaboration. Some research centers devote five to ten percent of their budget toward education and outreach activities. As specialists in informal science education, science museums can help research centers achieve the kind of impact that level of investment deserves.
University-Based Education & Outreach Coordinators
One of the advantages of working with research centers is that many of them have education and outreach coordinators. These are usually people with advanced training in science and engineering; often they have completed graduate or post-doctoral training, but have chosen to devote their time to education and mentoring rather than to research and teaching.
Education and outreach coordinators go by many titles. Kathryn Hollar, whose Ph.D. is in chemical engineering, serves as Director of Education for Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. She describes the job this way:
Education and Outreach Coordinators for research centers work with center researchers and partners to engage the public in the excitement of research ongoing in the center. E&O coordinators also work to increase the diversity and number of individuals who pursue science and engineering careers. E&O coordinators are responsible for developing, implementing and evaluating programs such as research experiences for undergraduates, teachers, and high school students and for organizing special events that engage diverse audiences in learning about or discussing science and engineering topics relevant to the Center’s research.
E&O coordinators make natural allies and liaisons for the science museum staff working on the public engagement and professional development side of the partnership. E&O coordinators are familiar with the research interests and skills of the faculty and their students, and they know which faculty members both enjoy and are effective at communicating with broader audiences. E&O coordinators often have had experience working with teachers and with public audiences; they may have already been involved in developing hands-on demos and other outreach programs. They most likely will be thrilled to see a science museum partner join the center, as it will enhance access to the museum’s venues, audiences, and expertise, and offer the opportunity to find like-minded colleagues concerned about attracting young people to science and advancing science literacy. Andrew Greenberg, who has a Ph.D. in chemical education and serves as E&O coordinator for the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says,
We help each other. The Discovery Center Museum [Rockford, IL] helps us reach a younger audience. We learn a lot from them about building a narrative, packaging a story around the material that helps to hook the kids. They’re really good at that. We can apply this to our other focus, which is classroom instruction.
Andrew’s partner at the Discovery Center Museum, Associate Director Michael Rathbun, adds
It’s been invaluable for us. It’s made everything we need to do easier with our grant. We can pull together something pretty quick. Andrew’s been fantastic with us. We do after-school programming, library outreach, museum exhibits, NanoDays, and we’re building a carbon playground together.
The caution here is that the university-based E&O coordinators also have a lot on their plate. They are quite often responsible not just for education and outreach to the community; they may also manage center-associated REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) and RET (Research Experience for Teachers) programs, GK-12 programs, graduate student seminars and professional development programs, as well as diversity recruitment. Their time is quite limited.
Some universities have centralized offices of outreach and some have them organized by department or school. As COSI’s Kim Kiehl notes,
It can be quite confusing, even to a person like me who was an associate dean inside the system, to find the right person to start with and process requires great patience and someone to focus on this work. It also helps to find an ally at the highest level of the university to help open doors that you may not even know need to be opened!
The National Science Foundation’s Research Center Educators Network, or NRCEN, is a somewhat loosely organized association made up of E&O coordinators from NSF-funded centers. Many of them represent MRSECs, or NSF Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers. Because MRSECs can be renewed every six years, without limit, and NSF explicitly requires them to have education outreach programs, many of them have fairly mature programs and full or part-time E&O coordinators. MRSEC education coordinators meet on a yearly basis, and share strategies for developing, implementing, and evaluating education outreach programs and for broadening diversity in science and engineering. A list of MRSECs and their education coordinators is published at www.mrsec.org.
Sometimes university-based E&O coordinators have expertise in informal science education and lead development of hands-on demos and other tools that can be used in science museum settings as well as in K-12 settings. Examples include the Interdisciplinary Education Group associated with the University of Wisconsin – Madison MRSEC, which produces the Exploring the Nanoworld website, and educators associated with the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, who produce demos, course units, and an online children’s magazine. E&O coordinators are usually happy to share what they’ve produced with science museums and during community science festivals. They also sometimes organize graduate student volunteers for education outreach.
Sometimes, the first contact between a science museum and a research center sometimes comes from a university-based science museum coordinator. For example, Daniel Steinberg, the Princeton University MRSEC E&O director, has reached out both to the Liberty Science Center and the New York Hall of Science. He wrote:
Science centers and museums, already accustomed to dealing with a variety of audiences, have staff trained in the communication science concepts. They are well situated to assist research facilities in meeting outreach goals. The relationship is beneficial for both partners. The researchers gain greater visibility and reach a bigger audience, and the science [museum] gains effective and interesting public programming that can help boost attendance.
At times, it is a research faculty member who is inspired to catalyze education outreach activities for a university research center. For instance, Gary Harris, director of the Howard University Nanotechnology Initiative, conceived and carried out the design and implementation of NanoExpress, a mobile laboratory that visits schools and sometimes science museums. Ainissa Ramirez, a materials science researcher on the faculty of Yale’s MRSEC, established Science Saturdays, a popular series of family events on campus. Carol Barry, a research faculty member of the Center for High-rate Nanomanufacturing, oversees many of the education outreach activities for the Center, including the Center’s partnership with the Museum of Science in Boston.
Motivational factors for researchers
What motivates science and engineering researchers to go out of their way to work with science museums? Why would the principal investigators of university-based research centers be interested in forming collaborative partnerships for education outreach? Why do science-funding agencies encourage such activities? These are obvious, yet important questions, and, the answers range from the realm of deeply personal to the macroeconomic realm of national competitiveness. We’ll travel the discussion from the inside out, beginning with the personal.
It’s fun and rewarding. Science museums are cool places. A surprising number of scientists have memories of moments of inspiration that occurred in science museums, which helped lead them into their careers. They are enthusiastic about science, and they enjoy sharing that enthusiasm with others. Here, far from the classroom and the pressure of teaching and research, away from the sober protocol of professional meetings, researchers relish contact with young people and adults eager to be engaged and open to learning. Here, they can sketch out the big picture of their research, re-living moments of inspiration and breakthroughs, and they can emerge re-energized, reconnected in ways they might not have experienced for years. They recognize how far they have come, what an extraordinary road they have been on, and how much they have to offer to others.
Working with science museums has been a fairly recent thing [for me]. And fun; on a scale of one to ten, it’s easily a twenty or a thirty.
– Andrew Maynard, Wilson Center Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
I really enjoyed giving my presentation … the moments when the audience caught my enthusiasm were exhilarating.
– Dan Recht, graduate student, Harvard University
It’s a way of “giving back.” Perhaps there was an individual – a teacher, a science museum educator, a camp counselor, a visiting scientist – who took the time to engage with them at an earlier time in their life and sparked their scientific imagination, their fascination with building things, or their thirst for exploration. Perhaps without that person or that experience or set of experiences, they might never have found the doorway to their vocation, might never have had the opportunity to open that door and step out to pursue their dream. Now they may feel inspired to reach out to others who, like themselves, may be waiting for just such a spark, just such an invitation to step into a wider world of play. Or, perhaps they want to provide to some lucky youngsters something that was not available to them when they most could have used it – respect for their youthful imagination, support for their sense of inquiry, encouragement to tackle a subject eschewed perhaps by peers and family members. Women and minority scientists, in particular, may feel a little extra motivation to provide encouragement, by engaging as proactive role models.
I am a scientist because I fell in love with science at a young age, when I was exposed to it with my chemistry set and with television shows like 3-2-1 Contact. There weren’t any scientists in my neighborhood, so there was no way for science to find me otherwise. I was lucky. The reason why I do science outreach is to reduce our reliance on luck.
– Ainissa Ramirez, faculty, Yale University
It provides an opportunity to sharpen one’s communication skills.
Communication skills are important to the success of researchers. They have to work with people from other disciplines, write articles and research grants, speak with journalists, administrators, prospective investors and funders, and yes, do outreach. Scientists enjoy the opportunity to work with science museum staff to sharpen their communication skill-sets and to get practical experience in front of diverse audiences.
It is a rare and valuable experience to get the chance to talk to people about my work. Mostly I just talk science to the people in my lab, and since we all have the same background, communication is pretty easy. But it can be quite difficult to explain to others, and I think the only way to get better at it is through practice. Additionally, it made me be more self-reflective of my own research, trying to see it from other people’s perspectives.
– Lauren Zarzar, graduate student, Harvard University
Another key component of communication, listening, is also encouraged by the face-to-face interactions scientists can engage in at science museums. Here they can hear the kinds of questions that non-scientists may have about their research and the kinds of concerns other members of the community may have about the larger societal implications of that research. Some science museums facilitate forums or science cafes where such conversations can be more easily pursued.
It’s prestigious. Science museums are recognized centers of culture in our community and being invited to speak at one or to participate in or co-host special events there is not only a treat; it is something to take pride in. Surveys show that science museums are among the most respected and trusted of public/private institutions. Science funding agencies value the partnerships researchers make with science museums, because they know the education outreach activities are likely to be of higher quality and reach greater numbers of children and adults. And some researchers get a real kick out of speaking at an institution that once enthralled them as a youngster.
It’s a responsibility. Some researchers feel a sense of civic responsibility to contribute to science literacy in the community and to advance science education in the schools. They may feel keenly the power of science to transform and better our lives and want very much to assist in inspiring the next generation to carry on the work. U.S. scientists, for instance, are most likely aware that international measures show that American students have fallen far behind many other industrialized countries in math and science aptitude and that experts project a serious shortage of U.S. candidates for advanced training and jobs in science and engineering. They could be worried about challenges the next generation may have trouble facing without a strong research infrastructure and a science literate public. They may be motivated to counteract negative images of science and scientists that are sometimes promulgated in popular culture. In addition, many scientists who received taxpayer support for their graduate student training and continue to receive federal funding for their research, feel a responsibility to continue to leverage that investment by attracting others to the field.
Science is what is changing the world now: the internet, mobile broadband, Google, genomics, climate change, stem cells, energy, carbon dioxide, water, all the rest. Science and technology have done wonders in creating jobs in the last hundred years; with public support and understanding, they should continue to do so; certainly there is no shortage of problems to solve. We need young people to create the science and then to use it to solve real world problems.
– George Whitesides, faculty, Harvard University
On a civic note, George Whitesides adds, “A democracy can only work if the people who vote understand the issues on which they are voting.”
There are also many external sources of encouragement for researchers considering participation in education and outreach activities…
Scientific communities often cultivate a notion of service among their ranks. The notion of service is embedded in university culture and is a factor in evaluating candidates for faculty positions. The broad spectrum of service-oriented activities for university researchers includes undergraduate teaching and mentoring, active participation on faculty committees, involvement with professional societies, and engagement in the broader community. Faculty outreach through public lectures, involvement in local schools, and participation in municipal activities helps to nourish and strengthen ties between the university and the community. While it is true that some senior faculty still advise their students to “avoid the distraction” of outreach activities and to focus instead on building a research and publication portfolio for tenure, the trend seems to be changing. More and more, faculty see advantages for their students and for the advancement of science in participating in service activities.
First, it is a chance for students to work with the public to promote a broader understanding of science and technology. Second it is an excellent way for graduate students to learn how to communicate their work to people who aren’t experts in their field (including policymakers and scientists in different disciplines).
– Jameson Wetmore, Faculty, University of Arizona
Professional societies encourage it. Some science and engineering professional societies encourage their members to participate in education and outreach activities and these organizations sometimes also organize and sponsor their own. This is particularly true with minority and women-serving professional science and engineering organizations, like the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Association of Women in Science.
The Materials Research Society is a large professional organization with two big annual meetings a year. It has its own education and outreach office and partnered with the Ontario Science Museum to build a successful traveling exhibit, Strange Matter, funded by NSF and industry donors. MRS organizes a database of volunteers to help at exhibit sites and maintains another database of volunteers interested in helping out the community of science museums associated with the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network. Says MRS past-president Shefford Baker,
MRS focuses on education and outreach for two reasons: First, since most of our members participate in basic research, and since basic research is funded by public funding, it is very important that we are able to demonstrate to the public what value they get from their investment. Second, since we always need new and better talent to drive the field forward, we hope to improve the knowledge base by interesting a wide range of students in STEM fields in general following the principle that growing the whole pie will grow our materials research slice.
Outreach activities organized by professional societies provide welcome infrastructural and social support for individual researchers who are motivated to participate in education and outreach, but who do not have ready means to initiate such activities on their own, or who simply prefer to be a part of a larger effort. Many private research and technology companies also share an interest in creating goodwill in the community through educational outreach. Larger companies, especially those aware of their dependence on the future availability of a well-trained science and technology workforce, are especially likely to provide grants and to encourage their employees to contribute to science and engineering education efforts through volunteer activities.
It satisfies a funding requirement. Most science research funding agencies and foundations encourage researchers to integrate teaching and mentoring roles into their research activities and to participate in outreach and service activities. Evidence of previous participation and plans for future participation in such activities can help a potential grantee’s application. Many funders are also particularly interested in seeing that grantees make efforts to recruit women and minority researchers to the field. One very significant funder, the National Science Foundation (NSF), requires grant proposals to include plans to address what is called “Broader Impacts.”
The NSF’s “Broader Impacts Criterion”
For researchers applying to the National Science Foundation, the motivation to consider ways to engage in education and outreach is very explicit – they can’t get funding without it.
The NSF’s “Broader Impacts” criterion stands side-by-side with its “Intellectual Merit” criterion as the two most essential frames for review of any proposal to any NSF directorate for research funding. The Intellectual Merit criterion addresses the potential of the proposed research project to advance the field in significant and important ways. Reviewers examine the rationale for the approach, its potential outcomes, its feasibility, the experimental design, management plan, and the qualifications of the team requesting the funding.
The Broader Impacts Criterion, or “BIC,” as it is sometimes known, addresses the larger societal context of the research, such as the recruitment and training of researchers, dissemination of research findings, the path from research to useful applications, attention to various societal implications of the research, and educational outreach to K-12, undergraduate, and the public. These can include efforts to recruit youth, women, and minorities to careers in science and technology, efforts to explore potential benefits and possible long-term implications of the research, efforts to engage community audiences in learning and discussion on the research and its impacts; and efforts to transfer knowledge to commercial enterprise and industry. In a sense, the BIC helps to remind program officers, review panelists, and researchers that the funds they steward are from the nation’s taxpayers and are meant to be an investment for the benefit our all our citizens and our future.
While, many researchers are intrinsically motivated to engage in education and outreach activities, it is often this bottom-line motivation – the requirement of funders – that tips the scale and turns intention into action.
Partnering with museums and other informal education institutions I think is really important and its been very useful for us, as you know the National Science Foundation is one example is an agency that requires outreach as part of their grants, and so this is a great way of taking care of that obligation while also hooking into the infrastructure that [science museums] provide.
– Mike Falvo, faculty, UNC Chapel Hill
The Broader Impacts requirement for NSF grants recognizes the need to go beyond just doing good research and to make the impact and results of our research known to a larger audience. At a fundamental level, this money is tax-payer money and hence we have an obligation to let the general public know what their money is being used for. Sharing new and exciting research is also a terrific way to get more K-12 students interested in pursuing careers in this area. The broader impact requirements should not be seen as a burden rather as an opportunity to invest in outreach activities.
– Amy Moll, faculty, Boise State University
Addressing the Broader Impacts Criterion
All proposals to NSF for research funding must include explicit plans to make meaningful contributions in one or more of the following five areas. A science museum partnership could be useful in most of these areas.
(1) Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning with innovative connections of research and education… [including] opportunities to involve undergraduate and high school students in research experiences [and] participate in the professional development of K-12 teachers…
(2) Broadening participation of underrepresented groups by involving members of underrepresented groups (women, African Americans, American Indians including Native Alaskans, Hispanics, Native Pacific Islanders, and persons with disabilities) in research and education activities at all levels. …[in order to increase] the pool of future talented educators and promising researchers.
(3) Enhance infrastructure for research and education by linking with scientists and programs to bring added value and enhance impacts of research activities. These can include “Advances in networking and cyber infrastructure give researchers novel ways and new opportunities for collaboration, for conducting research and education, and sharing their work.”
(4) Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding … [including] working with science centers on new materials research and education exhibits; assisting journalists with their stories on technical topics; and developing new art forms for communicating materials research to wider audiences; creating materials research related websites enhanced by engaging animations and movies to educate non-scientists and the public at large.
(5) Provide benefits to society by communicating to the public the excitement, benefits, and long term impacts of materials research and enhance public appreciation of the relevance of advanced materials research to the future and society.
[Excerpted from NSF-08062]
Meeting the Criterion with rigor
A 2008 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Director of the NSF Division of Materials Research, Dr. Zakya H. Kafafi, makes clear that the NSF expects that a broader impacts plan is to be conceived with intellectual rigor, referencing prior work that justifies its approach; it must involve people with appropriate expertise, and include measurable goals and means of assessment:
In light of NSF’s commitment to the broader impacts criterion, the proposer(s) should carefully consider ways to incorporate rigorous, meaningful and innovative broader impacts activities (e.g., broadening participation) that integrate with the research being proposed. It is expected that project activities related to broader impacts will be of the same caliber as those addressing the intellectual merit criterion. Contributions to broader impacts should be based on good scholarship, and be designed to achieve clearly stated goals and metrics, while possessing the appropriate expertise and resources available for implementation. [NSF 08-062]
The case for partnerships with science museums
Few research scientists have had the time or the necessary experience to become scholars in the field of informal science education or to effectively design and implement an education outreach plan with measurable impacts.
Some researchers have questioned the wisdom of tying BIC activities to research funding, arguing that research, teaching, and graduate student mentoring in a university is more than a full time job; and that scientists don’t necessarily have the skills or resources to design implement a rigorous outreach plan to broader audiences. And NSF is quite explicit the BIC components must be explicitly designed and integrated into each research proposal and not merely “synergistic,” i.e., separately-funded pre-existing or complementary activities that occur whether or not the grant-proposal is funded [Kafafi 2008].
It is easy to see why the PI of a proposed university-based research center would be interested in seeking a collaboration with a professional informal science education organization, such as a science museum, to develop a sound approach to addressing the broader impacts criterion.
When it works well
Here are three brief examples from that show how well these collaborations can work:
At the Museum of Science, we have had the fortunate opportunity to work with two NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center directors who understand that a five to ten percent allocation of overall funding to initiatives that fall under the “broader impacts” portfolio for their center demonstrates to NSF a commitment that goes “beyond what is normally expected” for teaching and mentoring graduate students, and beyond a mere alignment with other parallel “synergistic” outreach activities. Five percent of a $5 -10 million, 5-year award can provide $50,000 -$100,000 per year to a science museum sub-awardee, enough to fund one to two full-time educators producing a plethora of creative informal science education programs, small exhibits, media, and special events, while still reserving funding for the on-campus activities of the Center’s education and outreach coordinator. Using this strategy, these partnering research centers have received very high marks each year from their NSF review panels. Bob Westervelt provided this excerpt from an NSF site visit panel:
The Center demonstrated a very strong commitment to its educational and outreach mission, and should be commended for introducing a truly outstanding program in collaboration with the Boston Museum of Science. This program serves as a focal point of the Center’s educational outreach activities by coupling the scientific expertise of the technical investigators at MIT and Harvard with the energetic and enthusiastic communicators of science and technology information at the Boston Museum. This program has the ability to expose a vast cross-section of people throughout the Boston area to the excitement of science and technology. The Center should also be applauded in their initial attempts to disseminate this information to other Museums throughout the country, which will further enhance national impact.
Similar commendations from NSF went to the MRSEC at Penn State, which provided a sub-award to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to develop hands-on nano demo kits with training and national dissemination to multiple science museums, as well as summer camp and high school initiatives. MRSEC Director Tom Mallouk provided this excerpt from a site visit review panel’s report:
Educational activities proposed within this MRSEC are of outstanding quality. It is clear that the MRSEC team considers the integration of research and education as one of the highest priorities and requires each MRSEC member to contribute. The activities are innovative and non-traditional and include partnership with the Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia, strong ties with new magnet school Science Leadership Academy, a summer science camp “Action Potential Science Experience”, K-12 teacher training, a strong REU program, and a special program to involve graduate students in outreach activities.
NSF program officers were also quite pleased about being able to post on the Foundation’s website news about two traveling exhibits on nanotechnology that were produced by the Sciencenter of Ithaca, NY, in association with Cornell University’s NSF Nanobiotechnology Center; both exhibitions began their national tours at Epcot Center in Florida, reaching a very large audience in a relatively short time.
Reports of NSF’s enthusiasm for the success of these and other highly effective science museum – research center collaborations has begun to spread throughout the broader research community, and an increasing number of science museums are experiencing calls from researchers making inquiries about possible collaborations to include in their upcoming proposals. The next section is about how science museums can best prepare themselves for receiving these inquiries.
In the next section, we will explore the attributes of healthy partnerships and the stewardship practices that maintain them.