Origins of Broader Impacts in the West: Sovereign Nations Direct and Indirect Influence on NSF’s Broader Impacts Criterion

When it comes to broader impacts, most people have focused on how to do the National Science Foundation (NSF) broader impacts criterion. Many have not spent much time trying to understand the “entire” broader impacts concept. The inability to explain the “entire” broader impacts concept has slowed down the advancement of those concerned with broader impacts. This is especially true for those submitting proposals to NSF and those trying to address the philosophical issues associated with the NSF broader impacts criterion. This is because understanding the “entire” concept helps one to successfully accomplish the criterion. Understanding all the nuances of the concept also adequately informs organizations how to facilitate the criterion in a community.

It is common knowledge that the term, “broader impacts”, was coined in 1996 by NSF to be implemented as a scoring criterion for grant proposals. What appears not to be commonly known is that the origins of the “entire” broader impacts concept have practical and philosophical roots in values and thought established Before the Common Era (BCE). From a humanistic perspective, origins of this concept can also be found in other cultures throughout the world.

In the context of historical Western ideology and modern United States, some of these ideas and values were articulated by individuals such as Aristotle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The European ideas of this concept changed and evolved over time. However, these ideas evolved and developed most rapidly when Europeans encountered, learned, and mixed with peoples in the Americas.

More specifically, the rapid development and evolution of these ideas happened because these Ancient American civilizations, which spanned the Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Formative Periods, had already achieved broad integration and utilization of the concept before Europeans arrived in the Americas. In addition, the Ancient Americans utilized this concept within a value system that was vastly different from Europeans. This Ancient American “societally competent” value system allowed for the facile and quick transmission of this concept to others, e.g., Africans, Asians, and Europeans. Over time, as Europeans moved-in and colonization took place, some of these values and value systems were indirectly used, adopted, or stolen. Some of these values and value systems are now practiced in modern United States.

In general, the combination of Ancient American and European practice and thought, along with many other cultures, have helped to shape the values that are held today in modern United States. In particular, specific Ancient American values and value systems combined with certain Aristotelian ideals as well as ideas from others have shaped the concept that currently underpins the broader impacts criterion1. A topic that has not been well-articulated in the broader impacts conversation.

Furthermore, the specific Sovereign Nation ontological, epistemological, cosmological, and axiological underpinnings of and influence on the broader impacts concept and its use as a NSF criterion have also not been discussed. This in some ways is very surprising. Broad integration and utilization of this concept, in the context of Ancient American civilizations, has been well documented through many of the written and oral histories of the Peoples of the Sovereign Nations2.

For example, the “medicine man”, contrary to what has been portrayed ideologically in Western media, was not a babbling mystic. Depending on the Sovereign Nation and again contrary to popular Western belief, the “medicine man” could be a woman. These medicine people could also be educators, researchers conducting research, artists, providers, humanitarians, engineers, historians, philosophers, administrators, social scientists, chemists, or biologists. These persons were positioned to benefit society in real tangible ways. For the Peoples of the Choctaw Nation, one way this would have been accomplished is through varying social practices of service by serving others and developing relationships.

This act of creating connections was termed “I’yyi kowa” or (broken foot). As a concept and practice, it meant that this service needed to ensure beneficial stability or “social balance” and advancement of their society. In other words, people in these professions needed to achieve societal benefits and desired societal outcomes. Note: I’yyi kowa can be spelled differently between the varying Mississippi and Oklahoma Choctaw communities but the concept it represents is the same.

More importantly, this idea of societal benefit was a position taken by many Indigenous communities. The idea was called by different names. It was a required value and a cultural expectation. All together, these practical, philosophical, and historical ideas foundational to the broader impacts concept are some of the keys to understanding and clarifying the practical, theoretical, and philosophical issues surrounding the NSF broader impacts criterion3.

 

 

1 There are other cultures and civilizations that influenced the broader impacts concept that have not been provided in this discussion.

2 The use of the phrase “Sovereign Nations” is representative of Native Americans, Indigenous tribes, and their officially recognized independent governments/countries.

3 A comprehensive explanation of the practical, philosophical, and historical roots of the broader impacts concept will be provided at a later time.

Debunking the Twenty (20) Major Misconceptions About Broader Impacts, One at a Time:

Misconception 2: Broader impacts, specifically NSF broader impacts should be institutionalized.

Institutions should promote a broader impacts culture rather than try to exclusively institutionalize National Science Foundation (NSF) broader impacts. This supports a global conceptual definition of broader impacts rather than one just focused on NSF. The global conceptual definition of broader impacts is a process with stakeholders/people to achieve a societal benefit in a finite time that is measured. This can be through one’s, teaching, research, service, and occupation. There can be broader impacts of almost anything. If done appropriately broader impacts can lead to sustainable positive impacts.

Traditionally NSF has had a focus on broader impacts done through, complementary to, and related in some way to STEM, social science, and aspects of education research. STEM, social science, and primarily STEM education research are fields that fit within the NSF mission. However, NSF does not focus on all fields and occupations found throughout the institution. So there is a limit to who can value and adopt this important work if the objective is to institutionalize NSF broader impacts. This applies to institutions across the nation and those abroad. Furthermore, if it’s believed that broader impacts is only a function of a NSF criterion, which it is not, institutionalizing NSF broader impacts becomes an almost impossible endeavor. One cannot truly make something an institutional value if it is not widely applicable, used, and accepted by an entire institution.

Attempts to institutionalize NSF broader impacts have had some positive effects. There are now more people in the academy who explicitly show the societal benefits of their work. However, results of trying to institutionalize NSF broader impacts have also created negative perceptions about broader impacts by many of those: who are not in STEM; who are not in the academy; and whose areas of work are not applicable for NSF. Many inside and outside of the institution have been taken advantage of by those who are just trying to meet a broader impacts criterion to get funding. Those who have been taken advantage of inside the institution range from a number of university organizations to faculty, staff, and graduate students. Those outside of the institution who have been taken advantage of are primarily individuals or organizations who provide services to the community. In addition, others inside of the institution who do not apply to NSF see broader impacts as not being applicable in their field. A refocus to institutionalizing a broader impacts culture and movement away from trying to institutionalize broader impacts in regards to a criterion would reunite the academy and the institution with those in the community. Institutionalization of a broader impacts culture allows everyone inside and outside of the institution to come together and be both participants in and beneficiaries of the broader impacts effort.

In conclusion, through the use of the global definition of broader impacts, institutionalization of a broader impacts culture can align with all individuals in an entire university and most university and college missions. This would apply to universities and colleges both nationally and internationally. Emphasis on a global understanding of broader impacts that provides a comprehensive outcome-based approach for an entire institution enables universities and colleges to provide a greater societal benefit and/or positive societal impact. This would also help those in the academy submitting to NSF to achieve more creative, innovative, transformative, and overall higher quality NSF broader impacts.

 

[References below are provided to give a way to be made aware of some of the applicable resources. This is not a comprehensive reference list and the references provided do not necessarily meet the latest format MLA, APA, and etc., rules.]

Adetunji, O. (2016). Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Joint Committee. Year End Report 2015-2016. Brown University.

Adetunji, O. and Renoe, S. (2017). Assessing Broader Impacts. MRS Advances, 1-6. Doi: 10.1557/ adv.2017.136

Adetunji, O. and Thompson, M. (2016). The Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) 2014 Lexicon Modification for the Brown University Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Joint Committee Year End Report of 2015-2016. Brown University.

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2015). Perspectives on Broader Impacts. Online at, https://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/publications/Broader_Impacts.pdf (accessed 31, May 2017).

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2017). NSF 17-1 Proposal and Award and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), OMB Control Number 3145-0058.

The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). BI Definitions Guide: An abbreviated collection of explanations that begins to provide a common language when discussing, practicing, understanding, and better articulating the dimensions of broader impacts (BI). [Brochure]. [Norman, Oklahoma]. Thompson, M.

The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) Lexicon. The University of Oklahoma. Thompson, M.

The Journal of Epistemology. (2009). Special Issue devoted to NSF Broader Impacts Criterion. Volume 23, Nos 3-4, July – December, 2009.

Debunking the Twenty (20) Major Misconceptions About Broader Impacts, One at a Time:

Misconception 1: Broader Impacts only pertains to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Broader Impacts Criterion.

The global conceptual definition of broader impacts is a process with stakeholders/people to achieve a societal benefit in a finite time that is measured. This can be through one’s, teaching, research, service, occupation, and etc. There can be broader impacts of almost anything. If done appropriately broader impacts can lead to sustainable positive impacts. Having a global conceptual understanding of broader impacts helps answer questions such as – Who decides what will be done? Who benefits from those actions? Society through groups, communities, organizations, institutions, families, and individuals ultimately decides the value of actions as well as who benefits from those actions. This includes faculty. Having a global definition also allows us to begin to differentiate between broader impacts and impacts.

So what about NSF? The NSF broader impacts definition for the criterion is stated as encompassing the potential to benefit society and contribute to achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. This NSF definition of broader impacts aligns well with and can be explained through the global broader impacts conceptual description. An example of this alignment can be seen in outcome number four in NSF’s 1-9 desired societal outcomes. Outcome number four is defined as improved well-being of individuals in society. NSF desired societal outcome number four delineates and anticipates a positive societal outcome that has yet to be specified. I call it a just in case and everything else clause. Outcome number four implies that there may be a moment where specific actions will be taken that allow an improvement to an individual’s well-being. This improvement would be achieved based on a process with stakeholders/people deciding what will be done and who benefits. These benefits would not fit within the other eight NSF desired societal outcome categories. This supports the idea that there can be broader impacts of almost anything and further shows alignment with the broader impacts global concept.

Furthermore NSF, a federal agency, has specific foci as it relates to broader impacts. This is in regards to mostly STEM and social science fundamental research. This could be accomplished through: the research itself; activities that are directly related to specific projects; and activities that are supported by, but are complementary to the project. A more detailed description of how this specifically relates to the broader impacts global concept will be discussed at another time.

Outside of NSF, there are other agencies and foundations that also have a “benefits to society” requirement but these requirements are applicable to their specific broader impacts foci. The difference between NSF and local, state, regional, national and international agencies and foundations is that they do not specifically use the term broader impacts. They call “it”, meaning broader impacts something else. There are many of these broader impacts-like terms, phrases, and ideas used around the world. A few examples of these are terms like Valorization (in Netherlands), Knowledge Mobilization (in Canada), Equity in Development (in India), Capacity Building (in Africa), National Economic and Social Development and Social Influence, (in China from NSFC Article 14-15), Ultimate Outcomes (in United States Department of Education), and concepts underpinning Responsible Research and Innovation and the Research Excellence Framework (the European Union).

Broader impacts is multi-dimensional, multi-level, and multi-encompassing. Broader Impacts can also be accomplished in many different ways. So regardless of whether “it”: is fully integrated as a requirement; indirectly implied in a vision or mission; a subset of an organizations funding foci; called a different name; or explicitly called broader impacts, “it” can still be understood and explained through a global conceptual definition. Therefore all specific foci and aspects of broader impacts rest on a global verifiable concept and not solely according to an agency or foundation requirement.

 

[References below are provided to give a way to be made aware of some of the applicable resources. This is not a comprehensive reference list and the references provided do not necessarily meet the latest format MLA, APA, and etc., rules.]

Adetunji, O. (2016). Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Joint Committee. Year End Report 2015-2016. Brown University.

Adetunji, O. and Renoe, S. (2017). Assessing Broader Impacts. MRS Advances, 1-6. Doi: 10.1557/ adv.2017.136

Adetunji, O. and Thompson, M. (2016). The Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) 2014 Lexicon Modification for the Brown University Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Joint Committee Year End Report of 2015-2016. Brown University.

Davis, M. and Laas, K. (2014), “Broader Impacts” or “Responsible Research and Innovation”? A Comparison of Two Criteria for Funding Research in Science and Engineering. Science and Engineering Ethics, Volume 20, pp 963-983.

National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI). (2015). Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions for National Science Foundation Proposals. [Tri-fold]. [Columbia, MO]: Adetunji, O., Coakley, C., Dawe, J., Dugan, C., Fields, J., Kobilka, S., Koroly, M., Menninger, H., Renoe, S., Ristvey, J., Scowcroft, G., Spohr, K., Sundararajan, S., Thompson, M., and Youngblood, T.

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2015). Perspectives on Broader Impacts. Online at, https://www.nsf.gov/od/oia/publications/Broader_Impacts.pdf (accessed 31, May 2017).

National Science Foundation (NSF). (2017). NSF 17-1 Proposal and Award and Procedures Guide (PAPPG), OMB Control Number 3145-0058.

The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). BI Definitions Guide: An abbreviated collection of explanations that begins to provide a common language when discussing, practicing, understanding, and better articulating the dimensions of broader impacts (BI). [Brochure]. [Norman, Oklahoma]. Thompson, M.

The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) Lexicon. The University of Oklahoma. Thompson, M.

A Brief Introduction: To Realigning the Broader Impacts Conversation

 

Preface  

If you are reading this, you are probably somewhat familiar with the term “broader impacts” and the associated broader impacts criterion. My intent with this discussion is to share some thoughts and ideas about broader impacts which have yet to be explored or made explicit, by the broader impacts community – namely governmental agencies, institutions, faculty, researchers, scientist, scholars, and the nation. If you find these thoughts and ideas interesting please let me know and share them with a friend or colleague.

 

The Background and Issue with Broader Impacts 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) broader impacts criterion was formally introduced as a new criterion in 1997. More specifically this additional grant-writing expectation was communicated to the research community via Notice 121, New Criteria for NSF Proposals, on July 10, 1997 and officially implemented on October 1, 1997. During this time the NSF broader impacts definition for the criterion was described to all as encompassing the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. This criterion definition remains the same. However, both in the past and now, questions as to what the term meant/means at a conceptually rigorous level continued/continues to bring about much discussion. Other points of discussion also include – how one could be successful, transformative, innovative, and creative in the NSF BI criterion. Among those in the academy, namely faculty, and the broader impacts community, this is an issue that is still debated. So what was and continues to be the problem? What was and still is the enigma surrounding both the broader impacts concept and criterion?

 

The Main Contributing Factor as to Why the Confusion Over Broader Impacts

Traditionally in the academy, individuals would first start with models, laws, theories, and conceptual frameworks. These laws, theories, models, conceptual, and theoretical frameworks would be accompanied by a complementary methodological framework that allowed people, units, and organizations to develop and move beyond current thoughts, knowledge, techniques, insights, and technologies. This method of applying theory to methodology and practice was, has been, and still is a driving force behind many of today’s social, technological, innovative, creative, and transformative advancements.

When NSF issued broader impacts (BI) under the auspices of a criterion – a criterion being a principle or standard by which something may be decided or judged – researchers were forced to implement a series of steps, methods, and actions to be taken to achieve societal benefits. Societal benefits would then be judged on a series of guidelines to determine the merit of a submitted proposal. What this inevitably caused was implicit and explicit thinking about methods and/or a methodological framework that would meet the NSF’s BI criterion requirements. After years of researchers wrestling with understanding the NSF BI criterion, various stakeholders made sense of BI by exchanging the criterion methodology for the BI concept and theory. The trend became viral, leaving the nation little to no explicit provision of a theoretical and/or conceptual framework through which the concept of broader impacts was adequately practiced or explained. Evidence of this lacking conceptual/theoretical understanding of broader impacts can still be readily seen by simply asking the question – what is the difference between broader impact and impact?

This inversion created a paradigmatic disconnect from the trusted and widely used method of applying theory to methodology and practice that had been cultivated over centuries of advancement. Which caused an uproar in the academic community, created mass confusion, and left many others trying to remedy how to move the BI endeavor forward in a way that did not pigeonhole the nation to an agency criterion. So what are some of the more systemic problems this paradigmatic disconnect has caused? The resulting aftermath left many in the academy, who had once objected to the BI criterion, specifically faculty, to assume the restricted ideology – namely that they needed to figure out how to do NSF BI in order to move along with their academic/research lives. Meanwhile the other half of the academy (those outside of STEM disciplines) became uninterested because the concept appeared to be a function of one agency. Hence the unsettled non-ubiquitination across the academy, NSF, and many other agency groups.

 

The Challenges Ahead and Solution

For those who see this as a problem, and it is, the solution seems to suggest a realignment to how we think about broader impacts. Two of the questions that need to be asked are this: what is broader impacts at a global core conceptual and theoretical level and what are its appropriate applications, so as to not be skewed by a criterion? The implications here create the need for a renewed attention to the field of theory, study, and practice called the Research and Scholarship of Broader Impacts (SoBI). A more rigorous investigation into BI would not only provide clarity about the concept but would allow for the possible elucidation of a BI conceptual/theoretical framework. Once addressed, more insightful BI conversations could occur and much needed BI Core Competencies could be developed, especially for those who apply to NSF. In addition, this would allow individuals, organizations, agencies, and institutions to operate and be more effective, creative, innovative, and transformative in the NSF BI criterion. Only then with some greater certainty could we move the BI and NSF BI endeavor more adequately and expeditiously forward – all of which would provide a greater benefit to society.