An overview of broader impacts

July 1, 2013

Bianca has been working on a website that will introduce her team’s research to people who are unfamiliar with microbiology. I am contributing by writing the section entitled Broader Impacts. I got excited when writing the abstract (it needs to be a lot shorter than what I have here!!), so I thought I would share some of these ideas with you:

Today, in an increasingly difficult funding climate, scientific research must be able to show how new insights contribute to societal challenges. It is no longer enough for a research team to want to pursue a creative, inventive idea. In order to receive funding a team must put together a proposal that shows that there is societal relevance to the research. Thus the focus on ‘broader impacts’.

So what does ‘broader impacts’ mean? And how will it help the teams at LBPA? Broader impacts means that a research group must take an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach to their project. Interdisciplinary approaches integrate knowledge across the disciples (eg, biology with economics, scoiology, and philosophy). Transdisciplinary approaches seek to bring non-academics into the knowledge production process. (Of course, how you actually do these two tasks is something of a riddle.)

The teams at LBPA were designed so that chemists, biologists, physicists and engineers can communicate and problem solve together. This interdisciplinary approach to scientific research has benefited the research teams, for they are prepared to discuss a broad range of questions that arise during experiments. But they aren’t stopping there. Bianca’s team is interested in branching out to more disciplines to see how these other fields of knowledge can help her team both inside and outside of the lab. The arts, history, philosophy, anthropology, politics and other branches of the humanities are needed as well. These other disciplines will help Bianca’s team address the problems that they face in the future.

So what does it look like to integrate the humanities with the sciences? One approach is called ‘embedded humanism’. Embedded humanism places the humanist in the lab, doing the work of a true scientist. The term, embedded humanism works on the analogy of embedded journalism, which places journalists on the front line during wars so that their articles will reflect the situation more accurately.

The concept of embedded humanism has been richly developed by Erik Fisher, the Assistant Director of International Activities at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU. In 2010 Dr. Fisher designed an “experimental platform for scientists and engineers to incorporate the methods and perspectives of the social sciences and humanities” (Fisher). His project was called STIR: Socio-Technical Integration Research, and his main “objective was to understand the conditions under which science and engineering research practices can be responsive to social and ethical concerns” (Fisher). Dr. Fisher “embedded social scientists in over 30 different university and private sector labs across a dozen nations on three continents. The social researchers work[ed] for 12 weeks with their laboratory counterparts to unpack the social and ethical dimensions of research and innovation in real time and to document and analyze the results” (Fisher).

The STIR project turned out to be quite successful. I take inspiration from Fisher’s approach, and also from the approach of ‘field philosophy’ developed by CSID over the last 15 years. (For an introduction to field philosophy go here.)

There is a problem, however. Fisher had over $600,000 of government funding for his research, a huge team made of up doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers and a PhD of his own to structure his project. He had 12 weeks to conduct his project, and support from the National Science Foundation; Science, Technology and Society; Biology and Society; Mathematical and Physical Sciences and Society; Science of Science and Innovation Policy and the Office of International Science and Engineering. All of these institutions gave Dr. Fisher’s group an air of prestige and confirmation that their research was important and worth the time of the laboratories that they entered. (Similarly, CSID has had over a half million dollars to fund a variety of field philosophy projects, as well as a lot of support from the University of North Texas.)

But I’m only an undergraduate. I haven’t even started my junior year! I don’t have a team of social researchers with me in the lab engaging with the microbiologists. I don’t have 12 weeks to conduct my project. And I definitely don’t have a half million dollars of support. I am set up for failure: I am 20 years old, alone in a foreign country, not fluent in the language, not fluent in the language of microbiology and the world of ID/TD is new to me too.

But I take comfort from James Stewart, who said in Mr. Smith goes to Washington: “The lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” So I will count anything other than absolute failure as success!

I should also note the support that Bianca Scalvi has offered me. Without her none of this could have come off. Her open mind is the only reason that I am here in the first place, and I am endlessly grateful that she has allowed me to conduct this project. Also, CISD has been wonderful by supporting my project and talking me through some of the difficulties that I have come across. And so with Bianca’s and CISD’s support it looks like I might be able to not completely fail. My project is not the same as the STIR project, but maybe that is a good thing.

To put it differently, the experiment is, can you do embedded humanism/field philosophy as an undergraduate? And on a shoestring?

Learn more about STIR here:


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