New NSF Director Hints at “Wriggle Room” for Broader Impacts?

In a recent Newsmaker Interview with Jeffrey Mervis of Science, new NSF Director Subra Suresh had some interesting comments on NSF’s Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC):

“I think the spirit of the broader impacts criterion is good,” he explained. “But the question is, on whom do you place the burden? A large program has multiple entities that can ensure or follow through on the broader impact. But an individual investigator, especially a young investigator, may not have the opportunity or resources to demonstrate broader impacts. So the question is whether you can put the requirement not just on the individual but on a program that includes a collection of individuals. Perhaps you could also have some accountability by the institution itself.”

Could it be that Suresh has been reading Warren Burggren’s contribution to last year’s special issue of Social Epistemology devoted to BIC? In that article, Burggren suggests two alternative approaches to BIC that move away from the idea that each and every Principal Investigator (PI) must address the broader impacts of his or her research. He writes:

The first alternative approach is for NSF to transfer the burden of balanced discovery grant impacts from the level of the PI to the level of the PI’s institution.  Thus, the institution, not NSF, oversees that in aggregate its investigators collectively contribute substantially to both intellectual merit and broader impacts as required by NSF.

An[other] alternative approach retains the generalist theme required by the twin NSF criteria. Each PI submits a proposal thoroughly addressing both criteria as currently demanded. However, the organization and implementation of activities in support of BIC, when in the domain of outreach and or education, becomes institutionalized.

There is certainly a similarity between Burggren’s suggestions and Suresh’s comments. But how can we know whether Suresh had Burggren’s article in mind when he made his remarks? The answer is of more than passing interest: if Suresh is incorporating some of Burggren’s thinking, it is evidence of the broader impacts of Burggren’s participation in an NSF-funded workshop!

As for whether shifting some of the accountability burden from the individual PI to the PI’s institution constitutes “wriggle room,” as Mervis suggests — letting PIs off the hook for addressing the broader impacts of their research — or merely wiggle room — that is, room for a bit of flexibility (read creativity) when addressing BIC — remains to be seen. Is NSF set to try an experiment or two? Stay tuned ….

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