23 May 2014

What are the broader impacts of YOUR research?

Posted by Jessica Ball

helpAs a policy fellow for GSA, I spend a lot of time helping support funding for basic scientific research. When we write letters of support to Congress for sustained or increased funding, it’s really important not only to point out the value of basic research in general, but to demonstrate why it’s a good investment. And on Capitol Hill, this often works best if you can provide specific examples of how research has led to innovation, technology transfer or visible societal benefits – especially if they apply to a member’s district. We all know how important research is for developing the next theory, the next method, the supporting basis for our science, but it’s also important to talk about broader impacts and how our work can benefit someone outside of our research groups. And while it’s easy to look up the abstract for an NSF award, they don’t always tell you a lot about the broader impacts, which are extremely important when some legislators like to cherry-pick ‘bad’ grants to hold up as evidence of government waste.

So my questions for the geoblogosphere are these: What are the broader impacts of your work? Why is it important – and why should it be funded? 

At GSA’s DC office, we’ll shortly be welcoming a summer intern, and this is one of the topics I’m going to be working on with her. So it would be fantastic if we could collect some testimony from federally-funded geoscientists to help us convince the people holding the purse strings that geoscience research is an important part of society. Hearing directly from scientists – the personal stories of our research – carries a lot of weight. Do you remediate contaminant plumes? Does your mapping reveal valuable mineral deposits? Do your soil experiments lead to increases in crop yields? Do you use computer models to predict the path of hurricanes or pyroclastic flows or landslides? Did you help civil authorities develop disaster mitigation plans? These are just a very few of the kinds of things that we’d love to hear about.

As an experiment, I’ve set up a Tumblr blog to collect your responses. Please visit and consider submitting your broader impacts story!

You can get as specific as you like – give us a link to papers, conference abstracts, your professional research pages, or whatever you feel comfortable with. If you want to reference the abstract for a specific grant (like the ones available on the NSF’s website) even better! What’s important to us is that we have really concrete examples to show off, because making the human connection works much better than generalities. If you happen to leave an answer in the comments here, I’ll transfer it to the other blog.

Note: For the moment, we’re mostly interested in work that’s been funded by the US government. That doesn’t mean we might not expand to international funding later on, but being able to point to research that’s supported by the NSF, NASA, DOE, etc. will be the most useful just now.

As always, feel free to contact me directly if you want to know more or submit information that way, magmacumlaude AT gmail.com

(To give a little background on the policy issue that sparked this post: In one of the bills that’s being considered in the House to reauthorize spending for the NSF and NIST, some parts of Congress have decided that it’s necessary to authorize specific amounts of money for each directorate within the NSF Traditionally, they’ve just authorized a lump sum and let the NSF distribute it. In the bill currently being considered, the funding for the Geoscience directorate is flat, which when inflation is factored in essentially amounts to a budget cut. There are a number of reasons why this is probably happening – the fact that Geoscience supports climate change research is one – but it’s not good for anyone in the geosciences to face funding amounts that can’t even keep up with the cost of inflation. It’s already hard enough to get an NSF grant approved, and with less money in the pot it will get even harder: the 2012 approval rate was 31% and the 2013 rate was 26% for the GEO directorate, which is slightly better than the overall rates of 24% in 2012 and 22% in 2013, but still not high.)