At Odds—Science Funding and Science Communications

By Brooke Smith

Aug 27, 2012

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In 1997, the National Science Foundation (NSF) established the Broader Impacts section for all funding proposals, which requires scientists to explain how their proposed work advances societal needs and the field of science generally. This section has been applauded, dismissed, criticized, and even satirized. I think the section’s creation was a good first step. While it addresses many things from education to diversity (perhaps too many, according to the critics), it also prompts an important question: “So What?”  Why does this science matter to society, what’s the scientific merit that justifies using tax dollars to pay for this research, and how will its merit be shared outside academia?

With the recent passing of the COMPETES Act, Congress, NSF, and others are taking a hard look at the Broader Impacts section and coming up with some suggested changes.

As potential changes are afoot, discussions about the broader impact of science should provoke a discussion not just about the scientists’ responsibility to share to their knowledge, but also their ability to do so. It’s not just about acknowledging the societal relevance of any proposed research or knowledge, it’s supporting the funding streams that help society realize and utilize the benefits of science. This isn’t about needing more money (although I’m sure that it’s needed, that’s not my point) it’s about how that funding is considered, awarded and structured.

One of the reasons most existing funding mechanisms do not bolster the science/public engagement many seek (including me) is because we force communications processes into a scientific research model at the proposal stage when and where they just don’t fit. That needs to change.  At COMPASS we talk a lot about culture clashes – approaches, timelines, worldviews – as these are often the biggest obstacles to effective science engagement.

Consider these clashing timelines and approaches:

Scientific Funding: To overgeneralize what many of you are already very familiar with… funding proposals are typically submitted six months to a year before research begins. Once funding is awarded, research projects can be as short as six months, or as long as five years. Furthermore, reviews of NSF proposals (and those of other granting outfits) reward specificity and penalize vagueness.  A detailed, multi-year plan is often required. This is the culture of science.

Communications: The heart of any smart communications approach hinges on a single concept: relevance. Relevance boils down to two key factors in communications: audience and timing. You need to know your audience, know what they care about, and – when we talk about sharing and communicating science – talk to them at a time when the research or knowledge relates to what they care about. What various audiences care about and when they care about it, can be difficult to predict. The world changes constantly. We may know what a particular person or group (i.e. Congress) cares about today, but what will they care about in two years? What will be important to them in five years?

The culture clash boils down to this: scientific proposals consider work five years ahead of time, smart communication and outreach operates on a dime and with little notice. While considering the relevance of future results proves a challenging but useful exercise, requiring prescriptive planning for how to share them in the Broader Impacts section as early as the funding proposal process requires, is a misfit.

At COMPASS, we help connect relevant research results to key audiences… from science stories on the front pages of major newspapers to scientific briefings for members of Congress. In most situations the scientists did not have their own funding to support this outreach. How could they? They didn’t know that these opportunities would present themselves when they were drafting their research proposals five years earlier. Fortunately, we (with the help of other progressive-minded philanthropies,) aim to fill this gap, but our capacity and reach only goes so far.

If we want to bolster social engagement and communications by scientists, let’s structure funding mechanisms that support the most impactful ways to plan and implement engagement strategies. This will require thinking like a communicator, instead of as a scientist. After all, promoting and supporting science and scientific engagement – particularly with government funded studies – will help research better address societal questions and problems. If we don’t develop the right investment mechanisms for scientists to make these connections efficiently and effectively, or support the appropriate infrastructure to do this, we’re not maximizing our investment in science at all.

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