Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Is your career making an impact? by Julia Kamenetzky

Julia Kamenetzky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Her research focuses on extragalactic submillimeter spectroscopy, utilizing Z-Spec, Herschel, and ALMA.

We’ve probably all thought about the level of income, independence, and flexibility that we desire out of a career; some people choose to prioritize one thing over another.  An additional aspect is the degree to which one feels their career is making a positive impact on the world.  In that realm, the physical sciences suffer from a bit of an image problem.  This problem is especially applicable to the AASWomen Blog because girls and women are more likely to prioritize a career that benefits society [1, 2, and others in 3], and basic research is often not seen as fitting that goal.   (Remember, this doesn’t mean that all women do and all men don’t, just that by ignoring societal impacts we’re missing a large group of talented people, and many of them are women.)

That idea led me to study the ways that various scientific fields fulfill the National Science Foundation’s Broader Impacts Criterion [4].  I completed the first iteration of this study as part of an excellent graduate course in science policy.  I won’t go over the results, but in the beginning of the paper I discuss the history of this criterion and the reaction to its implementation in 1997.  After completing the course, I wondered “why aren’t we as scientists having these conversations, why are the policy analysts talking amongst themselves, with little interaction between the two groups?”  (One of my former students had similar thoughts about an undergraduate space policy course - “It should be required for every astronomy major!”)  I had heard scientists complain about having to justify broader impacts, but often without a good understanding of the many things “broader impacts” may mean (it is NOT exclusively outreach or diversity), and without taking a moment to think about why they might be asked for such justification.  

I myself once faced the feeling that I wanted to be “helping people” and “making a difference” and that a career in science wouldn’t fulfill those dreams.  My research advisor pointed out that, even outside of teaching, a large part of his job is mentoring.  I realized afterwards just how naive it was for me to imply that he didn’t help people, when I had been the recipient of his mentoring!  That experience, and this project, helped me see that I can make a career in science fit with my goals.

Therefore, I would encourage scientists to actively engage in discussions about why we do what we do and what is our role as scientists in a democratic society.  Seriously acknowledge the impacts that you have as mentors, teachers, and researchers.  It may not have been your first priority, but you’ve likely made an impact anyway.  Articulating why what you do is not research for research’s sake alone could catch the attention of a young, talented student who is unsure if science is right for them.

[4] Kamenetzky, “Opportunities for impact: Statistical analysis of the National Science Foudnation’s broader impacts criterion.” Science and Public Policy, 2013, 40:1, 72 [Contact me for an individual copy if you cannot access the journal.]


Anonymous said...

Someone should tell our NSF "peer" reviewers this! The time and effort many of us devote to student and postdoc mentoring and training, mostly for their entry into the broadly defined technical workforce, should indeed count in the area of broader impacts. This is especially true if the proposal is funding only or mainly the student or postdoc, and not really any PI activities. Comments on declined research proposals indicate otherwise.

A job as a professor involves classroom education and institutional duties. Any research progress and training or mentoring is self-driven activity and requires funding. But it's as if only things like inventing new outreach programs for underprivileged youth, or going into prisons for continuing education, seem to count with NSF reviewers. And we can't all be doing these kinds of things at night and on weekends given other commitments like our own aging parents or growing kids who need our attention in the limited amount of time not taken up by our actual day jobs. Somehow having an NSF grant is supposed to invent time in the day for outreach activities on top of the requirement to get the research done and supervise the student or postdoc. A separate point is that many of us dutifully do our broader community service duties in many small and continuous ways without asking for "credit" for it in written NSF proposals.

Reviewers, please be broader in your understanding of broader impact, and also more cognizant of the realities out here.

Julia said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your comment. You get at a very important point about a scientist's time. I'd argue that outreach is incredibly important, but that there needs to be more institutional support, such that each individual is not perpetually starting from scratch.

However, I disagree that large outreach efforts are the only things that count with NSF reviewers. In my study, only 10/100 funded proposals in the Mathematics and Physical Sciences Division proposed K-12 outreach, and 7/100 proposed public outreach. In fact, a large criticism after the implementation of the Broader Impacts criterion was that reviewers were completely ignoring it, and it's taken years of effort to turn that around. So while it's disappointing to receive declined proposals, I'm not sure what conclusions can be drawn - perhaps inconsistency in reviewing? An astronomy-specific problem? It would be especially interesting to examine successful vs. unsuccessful proposals, but unfortunately that data isn't publicly available.

Anonymous said...

As someone who's reviewed NSF proposals, I also encourage the *writers* to be broader in their understanding of broader impact. One person will state (only) that training a post-doc is the broader impact, while others go into a lot of details regarding K-12 STEM education, undergraduate research students, conference attendance, etc. (and not just programs for underpriveleged youth). I, for one, do seriously consider the broader impact and fight for the proposals that do more than just provide jobs for people who already have PhDs.