Friday, June 17, 2011

NSF Changing Broader Impacts

The NSF is changing its description of its merit criteria -- specifically, what the Broader Impacts criteria will be.  The details are still being worked out, and comments are being collected until July 14.  More information can be found on this NSF page

The current draft text states:

Collectively, NSF projects should help to advance a broad set of important national goals, including:
  • Increased economic competitiveness of the United States.
  • Development of a globally competitive STEM workforce.
  • Increased participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM.
  • Increased partnerships between academia and industry.
  • Improved pre-K–12 STEM education and teacher development.
  • Improved undergraduate STEM education.
  • Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.
  • Increased national security.
  • Enhanced infrastructure for research and education, including facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships. 
This list is much more concrete than how I normally think of the current NSF Broader Impact statement.  However, it still seems rather vague and open-ended.   Most proposals can easily claim to help enhance increased economic competitiveness or development of a globally competitive STEM workforce.  Perhaps that is for the best:  proposals will have to make a compelling case that their work has broader impact, but there can be many ways to accomplish that.

It does seem, though, that this list isn't particularly theory-friendly.  Cryptographers can point to national security;  my algorithmic work can certainly point to academia-industry partnerships and economic competitiveness.  But more complexity-related proposals, or algorithmic proposals with less clear immediate practical applications -- where do they fit in?  Should it be a national goal to support more theoretical research with long-term and unclear payoffs?  (I think so, particularly as that sort of research is generally relatively very cheap and has potential for huge benefits.)   How would you place such research in the above Broader Impact context, or should a new bullet be added?  What else would you add?

1 comment:

Geoff Knauth said...

I would argue that CS has exploded into hundreds of subspecialties--at least since I was a teenager forty years ago--that it can seem so daunting a funding challenge that short-sighted politicians are tempted to say, "Let industry take care of it." But industry in early 21st century America is so driven by quarterly results that it will never take care of fundamental research, and explosions in CS derive from fundamental thinkers. CS core research is no more over and done with, as some presume, than are advances in physics or mathematics. People have to understand that progress won't stop, it will just take place elsewhere if we don't do it. Research in complexity is very near the root of the tree. If you want the tree to grow you have to take care of the roots.