Science communications has been under an intense microscope for almost two years. With public engagement in science at the core of that scrutiny, we were eager to dive into how it has trickled into university research programs.
In a special guest Q&A, Science Talk’s Dr. Allison Coffin sat down with Susan Renoe from the University of Missouri and Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS) to discuss how the increased spotlight on scientific research fueled by the pandemic has made waves in the university setting.
Dr. Allison Coffin: As scientific research remains in the spotlight with an increased focus on communicating research to the broader public, what are you seeing shift in the university environment?
Susan Renoe: There are a few things I’ve observed shift in universities, all of which began building traction just before COVID-19 and really gained steam once the pandemic hit. First and foremost, public engagement training has been more of a focus and universities are developing opportunities for graduate students to get experience communicating research to the broader public. Many are offering certifications for graduate students related to public engagement or other programs to develop that skill set. For example, at University of Missouri, the Science on Wheels program offers graduate students opportunities to communicate their research to diverse audiences, as well as a new graduate certificate in public engagement.
We’re also seeing similar training and opportunities available for faculty, post-docs and others to engage the public. Before the pandemic, we partnered with a local movie theater to host monthly Extra Credit events where we would show a movie–examples include Groundhog Day, Die Hard, Black Panther, and the children’s movie Inside Out–and after the movie an interdisciplinary panel of researchers would briefly talk and answer questions about the film in light of their research.
AC: What conversations are taking center stage in universities around science communications as it relates to public engagement, the future workforce, and requirements for funding?
SR: We’ve had more conversations about the value of public engagement over the last 18 months than we’ve ever had before. The common theme is we need to do a better job communicating who we are, what we do, and why it’s relevant to people’s lives.
When it comes to the future workforce, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been focused on what we consider to be broader impacts or public engagement since the beginning. Within the first few years of its founding, NSF was supporting professional development workshops for high school teachers to grow the next generation of scientists and supporting the national science fair. In conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s Endless Frontier, there are a lot of discussions about what science should look like over the next 75 years. Those conversations always circle back to broadening participation, activating a diverse scientific workforce, and engaging students in STEM.
When it comes to shifting funding requirements, there is no denying the correlation between public engagement and research funding. Your funders are made up of the broader community. The more you communicate with them, the more invested they are in your research. But more than the financial benefit of engaging with the community, we’re seeing more of a moral need to show people how the research will make a difference in their lives. The pandemic has opened our eyes to the cause and effect of a lack of understanding behind the research. “Putting something online” and hoping your audience finds it is not an effective solution. It eliminates so many populations, whether it be pockets of the elderly community less engaged online, homes without consistent technology and Internet access, or cultures that intentionally avoid technology.
AC: Are you noticing any changes to resources or requirements being incorporated in universities and labs for the NSF Broader Impacts criterion?
SR: While we haven’t seen a dramatic shift in the strictness of the requirements, we are seeing a lot more resources allocated to address the Broader Impacts criterion. There is more thoughtfulness and accountability than ever on research proposals and in response universities are providing the needed support for their faculty.
While it looks different on every campus, I anticipate we will continue to see more programming and designation for additional support going forward. The value of having more Broader Impacts support is your researchers have a competitive advantage. We’ve also seen more support from the NSF to support researchers as they develop their Broader Impacts plans–including funding the National Alliance for Broader Impacts, ARIS, and the new multi-institutional research project grant awarded to Rutgers University in October.
AC: While NSF requires a Broader Impacts section for research proposals, other government agencies do not. Do you think all federal funding agencies should require Broader Impacts? Why or why not?
SR: Communicating research should be part of every research product; engaging the public in research is good for everyone. While NSF is the only federal agency to have a Broader Impacts requirement, all other agencies support activities we consider to be tied to Broader Impacts–including broadening participation and K12 outreach.
If Broader Impacts were to be expanded to other federal agencies, we must be very thoughtful about how we implement it, and focus on the needs and mission of each agency.
AC: Where is ARIS focusing its resources in light of the developing demands around scientific research, engagement, and science communication?
SR: We are focused on building individual and organizational capacity. Our attention is on how we can support researchers and Broader Impacts professionals be more effective, whether that be through webinars, training programs, or building capacity within their institution.
Tied to the latter, this year we launched our Program to Enhance Organizational Research Impact Capacity (ORIC). Institutions and organizations participating in this year-long program receive training, resources, and mentorship, which allows them to substantially enhance their internal capacity to support research impacts efforts, while becoming part of a community of practice.
We’re in a truly inspiring time for the future of scientific research. If you asked me three years ago where we’d be in our effort to move the needle on public engagement, I would have said we were really going to try, but the realistic expectation for that movement would have been minimal. Now I feel like we really are moving the needle and there is an intentional effort from all sides of the process.
AC: What other organizations would you recommend our community follow for additional resources?
SR: The National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP) hosts a lot of programs and events focused on research development, and we just formalized our partnership with them. The kickoff will include a keynote address by NSF Office of Integrative Activities Head Dr. Alicia Knoedler. ARIS also collaborated on a summit with Research Impact Canada (RIC) earlier this year: Research Impact & Public Engagement at the Intersection of the Future Workforce, a virtual conference featuring American and Canadian speakers and content relevant to both sides of the border.
We’ve partnered with other organizations on similar events in the past as well, such as Network for Advancing and Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science (AESIS Network) for their annual conference and BioIndustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE) for webinars. All great organizations to track!
About the Authors:
Dr. Allison Coffin, PhD, is a neuroscience professor at Washington State University in Vancouver and co-founder and President of Science Talk.
Susan Renoe is the Associate Vice Chancellor and Assistant Professor of Strategic Communication for the University of Missouri. She is also the Principal Investigator and Executive Director for the Center Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS).