Impact Cousins, but Maybe Not (yet) Siblings / Cousins par l’impact, mais pas encore tout à fait frères…

A Canadian, a Brit, two Dutch and someone from Flanders went to Philadelphia for three days. We found an impact tribe, but one that turned out to be more diverse than anticipated.

Un Canadien, un Britannique, deux Hollandais et un Flamand s’en vont à Philadelphie pour trois jours. Au-delà de leur parenté certaine, ils se découvrent des différences plus importantes que prévu…

NABI logo

The National Alliance for Broader Impacts is a network of folks supporting the broader impacts arising from US National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. The NSF funds research and training in science & technology including some social sciences (but no humanities). Each grant application must have a “Broader Impact” section that describes how the research will have an impact beyond the impacts on scholarship. Sounds familiar? Like a SSHRC knowledge mobilization strategy or a CIHR KT strategy, right?

Well yes, and no.

According to NSF Broader Impacts (BI) can be one of nine categories:

  1. Full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
  2. Improved STEM education and educator development at any level
  3. Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology
  4. Improved well-being of individuals in society
  5. Development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce
  6. Increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others
  7. Improved national security
  8. Increased economic competitiveness of the United States
  9. Enhanced infrastructure for research and education

The annual summit of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI, Philadelphia, April 20-22) is a place where BI is discussed, BI practitioners and supporters network and plans are shared for moving from individual supports to campus based BI offices. I learned that while NABI members share a goal of creating impacts of research beyond the academy, the concepts of impact are construed very differently from our work in Canada.

At the NABI conference the two primary modes of creating impact were “broadening participation” (Category 1, above) and engaging schools in science communications/outreach (Category 2). The vast majority of presentations at the NABI summit featured examples of outreach and engagement with schools. This was underscored by an NSF program officer telling the audience that what “sells well” for BI strategies in grant application is “engagement with schools, engagement with K-12 teachers, engagement with museums and/or archives”.

This certainly isn’t wrong but this is in contrast to the specific KT/KMb planning Canadian research impact practitioners undertake to create a specific impact pathway with specific indicators to include in a grant application’s KT/KMb section.

There were no examples of BI practitioners seeking to move beyond engagement to seek to influence change in policy, practice or product. While I understand that economic impact is welcomed as a BI strategy (see #8 on the list above), it was widely acknowledged that commercialization, technology transfer and entrepreneurship were not part of the NABI conversation and were managed by other offices on campus.

This doesn’t make NSF BI wrong or less important that KMb/KT efforts. The US experience is being driven by NSF policy directives which privilege broadening participation and science outreach. The U.K. experience is being driven by the Research Excellence Framework that seeks to assess the impact of University research in all disciplines. The Canadian KT/KMb experience is being driven by funders such as CFHI (formerly CHRSF), CIHR, and the Health Charities that have a mission to create impacts of research on health services, clinical practice and patient benefit. The Canadian Federation for Humanities and Social Sciences has defined impacts to include impacts on the economy, on society/culture and on practice/policy.

Different goals from different funders will drive differences in impact cultures and practices.

It was our differences not our similarities that made the NABI conference interesting. In the way that Canadian and UK research impact practitioners are related (see an earlier post about the UK/Canada comparison), I went to NABI expecting to find some new impact siblings. But instead I found research impact cousins, not as close in practice as impact siblings. With a focus on broadening participation, a focus on STEM and outreach to schools, the NABI experience is quite different from the Canadian research impact experience.

But this is a relatively new field for the US. Most BI practitioners work as sole practitioners in their project, school, unit or Faculty. There are no more than a handful of institutional BI offices in all of the US (see the BI Network at U Missouri as an example) and none more than a few years old. NABI itself is in its fourth year. This is in contrast to the 10 years of experience in ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche (RIR). The Harris Center, (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and the Community University Partnership Program (University of Brighton) are both well past their 10 year anniversaries.

Nonetheless NABI and RIR have a lot to learn by continuing to build on this relationship. To that end, Susan Reno (U. Missouri BI office and head of NABI) is attending the Canadian Knowledge Mobilization Forum (Toronto, June 28-29). Some NABI personnel are attending the UK Knowledge Mobilisation Forum (London, May 10-11). Susan is also coordinating a group of impact cousins from University of Ghent (Flanders/Belgium), Leiden University (Netherlands), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), Cathy Howe (UKKMbF), and me representing Canada/RIR.

This group will sow the seeds of an international knowledge mobiliz(s)ation community. Some will be siblings. Some will be cousins. All will be better off sharing and broadening our own participation in impact whether it is school engagement and/or policy influence.

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