A Vaccine for Last-Minute-Itis

Several times in the past (check the RISE Group Page), I’ve written about the problem of last-minute-itis among NSF grant proposal writers. Symptoms of this illness are well-known to grant administrators at universities as well as at science museums, and, let’s face it, we’ve all succumbed to its indignities at one time or another. FastLane has to become a very WideLane on the deadline day for grant submission. One of the biggest casualties of last-minute-itis has been the “broader impacts” portion of a research center’s grant proposal, and with it, the potential for robust educational outreach partnerships with science museums, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. The NSF “Broader Impacts Criterion” (BIC) for evaluating research proposals was established in the mid-1990’s alongside the “Intellectual Merit Criterion” to try to ensure, according to one observer (Bob Eisenstein, on the American Physical Society website) “that scientists would have to think more carefully about the ways in which their work impacts society and to help provide the public with more information about what scientists are doing.” Eligible BIC activities include education and outreach (E&O) as well as broadening participation of underrepresented groups, and enhancing infrastructure for research and education. A 2008 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Director of the Division of Materials Research (nsf08062) emphasized rigor, meaningfulness and innovation in pursuing these activities, and advised prospective grantees…

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.

In other words, NSF wants researchers to take these activities very seriously. However, it is also true that most NSF research proposals are reviewed by peers in the relevant science and engineering research fields, and not by specialists in education, outreach, diversity, or any of the various domains of societal impact research. So, although in theory a critical review of a research proposal’s “broader impacts” merits is meant to be as meaningful to a proposal’s success as a critical review of its “intellectual merits,” how often do review panels include the necessary expertise? Does this lead, in some cases, to a tacit acceptance among peer reviewers that the right motions in the direction of education and outreach, diversity, and public engagement will suffice, based on nominally accepted practices, such as giving of public lectures, field trip tours arranged for local school groups, a laboratory open house, and diversity recruitment for graduate student posts? Because these are generally thought of as good will gestures requiring little advance preparation, no front-end or formative evaluation, nor measures of actual impact, there is generally little basis on which to rate the relative merit of the activities, and thus, sadly, not much incentive to devote the effort to make them as effective and far-reaching as possible. It is not surprising then, that last-minute-itis strikes particularly at these more vulnerable and less-fortified BIC portions of the research proposal, sometimes meriting only a paragraph or two and a rather minimal wedge of budget, while relying chiefly on good will and peer pressure among the respective faculty and particularly their graduate students to give a portion of their time to education & outreach. Realizing that they do not have the necessary audiences nor the appropriate venue for E&O activities, some university researchers contact their local science museums with offers to give a series of talks or to (ask their graduate students to) build an exhibit. This offer typically comes during the last very stage of the onset of last-minute-itis and can result in an urgent call-in to a senior science museum staff member, accompanied by a disarming request for an institutional letter of support for the research proposal, to be faxed the next day. Needless to say, there is little opportunity here for true partnership and collaboration, and no time to talk of budget, design, content, appeal, educational value, or audience. Now, many of us in the NISE Network have been blessed with university research partners who value education, support public engagement in science, respect the professionalism of ISE institutions, and contact us weeks before the proposal due date to propose a meeting to work out some concepts for E&O and a level of support that will become a line item or a subaward in their budget. And many ISEI’s reach out on their own to local researchers to invite them to participate in exhibit planning activities, guest researcher encounters, and programs for teachers and high-schoolers. We need more of this. It would be terrific if NSF review panels took it upon themselves to examine more critically the proposed E&O and other BIC activities. Some researchers, perhaps with good reason, feel that the BIC burden is unfair, that they do not necessarily have the training nor the proclivity for E&O; others realize that the responsibility can often be best shared by partnering with organizations which do have this expertise – such as science museums. NSF in fact recommended this approach in the 2005 NISE program solicitation, NSF 05-543:

Research organizations are content-rich, offering depth of knowledge and resources based in STEM fields, such as nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. Science museums and similar informal science education organizations are audience-rich and closely tied to their communities, with expertise in translating complex topics into forms that engage and educate the public, especially families and children, including K-12 school groups. Thus these organizations can serve as intermediaries that can connect audience needs and interests with knowledge based on current science and technology.

By stepping up to the plate to fund the NISE Network, the NSF offered the science museum community an opportunity to temporarily fund research center – informal science education collaborative activities without relying on direct E&O subawards from research centers. This is a win-win situation for all of us, and for our audiences, if we all work together diligently and intelligently. But NISE Net funding will eventually sunset, and then we will again be vulnerable to last-minute-itis. Hopefully by that time, we will have proved the effectiveness of the collaborative approach and we can stave off that infection with healthy doses of an old-fashioned vaccine – advance planning - jointly crafting and budgeting effective E&O programs well before FastLane deadline time. In the aforecited NSF 05-543, the agency seems to be pointing us in the direction of research center – ISE collaborations for addressing broader impacts in all research fields:

Although firmly grounded in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology appropriate to NISE, this form of collaboration should serve as a model transferable to other STEM fields and should assist researchers in addressing the broader impacts of their work. Whether you are a researcher or an informal science educator, then, there is no reason not to start planning E&O collaborations now, whether to bolster your NISE Net connected efforts or to initiate new research – ISE collaborations in other fields of science and engineering. Public audiences are standing by, ready to be engaged. For more information on the NISE Net’s Research – Informal Science Education partnership initiative (RISE) and resources, check out the RISE Group page.