Consultation and support resource for engaged planning, designing, and implementation of Broader Impacts programs.

What is Institutional Support for Broader Impact/Research Impact Activity?

One of the goals of the Wisconsin Broader Impacts Design (BID) Team is to improve institutional support of BI activities by the university. But what exactly does that mean?

The National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI, now Advancing Research Impacts in Society) has listed ‘institutional support’ as something necessary for faculty and staff to successfully implement their outreach efforts and to instigate improved attitudes towards broader impacts (BI). However, the term itself is purposefully nebulous from the perspective and guidance of the NSF to allow flexibility. This flexibility and lack of clear definition is a doubled-edged sword as it makes developing said institutional support from the ground up challenging since there are no examples or tools to rely upon.

The Wisconsin Idea (or reminding faculty, staff, and students of their duties to research, teaching, and outreach) is an abstract form of institutional support. The Wisconsin Idea is a principle used by the university system throughout Wisconsin to remind faculty and staff that they have obligations other than research. This reinforcement of the multi-faceted requirements of faculty careers normalizes outreach and makes putting time, effort, and money into outreach activities an acceptable part of business-as-usual.

Another form may be easily accessible material resources. Prototyping a successful activity can be costly in both time and materials, so an institution’s BI or outreach office or other equivalent office can store common craft materials and other tools used to create activities. This can take a huge burden off researchers who may be at a total loss as to what materials they need or may be cautious about spending their budget on materials that may not be put to good use.

A supplies ‘library’ may also help researchers generate new ideas after seeing what materials are available. This is especially true to more unusual materials like small electronics (circuitry sets for example) and small power tools. A space and set time to use such tools and to prototype can also go a long way in making sure researchers feel like they have what they need and time to put aside for prototyping. Researchers may not have a space of their own that is suitable to working with craft materials and tools for a variety of reasons, like if they have children.

Even more than supplies, a BI office (or its intellectual equivalent) with experienced and knowledgeable staff can support faculty and others when writing the outreach/community engagement sections of grants, plan timelines, and budget. A early-career researcher may not know how much money they need to set aside for certain services or recognize the feasibility of doing so many projects in a certain amount of time or know best-practices when working with the public. The dedication of all that is needed for an office towards BI and outreach sends a powerful message that the university takes public engagement seriously and normalizes it.

Being vague regarding definitions and avoiding examples is common in the BI field and funding institutions like the National Science Foundation, but this can pose a challenge to those who are trying to start efforts to improve ‘institutional support.’ Some universities have a principle like the Wisconsin Idea and regularly remind faculty and staff of their duty to expand their work beyond campus. BI materials and supply closets may be widely available to researchers, and outreach offices may supply expertise to support researchers in grant-writing, budgeting, and planning. However, institutional support cannot be improved if there is a struggle to understand what the term actually means or looks like. Fortunately, the UW System has the Wisconsin Idea to promote and validate Broader Impact and research impact activities.