Realizing the Benefits of Basic Research

It takes more than innovative science to get funding for basic research these days. Researchers applying for grants must also demonstrate the “So what?” of their science. In addition to convincing grant reviewers of the intellectual merit of their proposals, scientists must also show the potential for broader impacts and how they plan to work with stakeholders to realize the benefits. 

“Doing the science comes naturally to researchers; it’s what they live and breathe,” says Joe Miller, Director of Community Outreach at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Making sure an institution’s research actually changes the way things are done in the real world is where people like Miller come in. He’s part of a growing field called Broader Impacts that focuses on bridging the gap between researchers and community stakeholders. “Faculty are usually really good at the intellectual-merit piece of it. That’s their thing, but many of them are not as good at the broader-impacts piece of it.”

Last month, Miller and more than 250 other (mostly) academic professionals from the Broader Impacts community came together online for the Advancing Research Impact In Society (ARIS) 2020 Summit. This 8th Annual Meeting was supposed to take place in Durham, North Carolina. But, when the governor declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers decided to convert it to a virtual event. 

“We use this as our professional development time,” says Susan Renoe, Ph.D., Executive Director of ARIS and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research, Extension & Engagement at the University of Missouri. “It’s an opportunity for us to share promising practices, to network, to set up collaborations, to take stock of where we are at this point and where we’re trying to go.”

Until this year, this community met annually under the auspices of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), which was phased out last year as ARIS was phased in. In 2018, a $5.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation established the Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society housed at the University of Missouri. 

Today, ARIS has 800 members worldwide. In addition to employees of academic institutions, the membership includes people from federal agencies, private foundations and the informal STEM community, such as science museums and aquaria. “It’s really a mix of people who are interested in the intersection between research and society,” Renoe says.

Virtual Family Reunion

ARIS organized a small, virtual workshop in March, so the idea of a virtual conference was not new, but in order to host a larger on-line conference, ARIS leadership turned to KI. For KI, which first facilitated a large interactive workshop online in 2018, the ARIS Summit became the first facilitated virtual scientific conference  — complete with panel presentations, lightning talks, poster sessions and ‘hallway’ chats over coffee. (ARIS Summit 2020 presentations are available on its YouTube channel. They range from talks on classroom-based STEM to engaging interfaith communities in broader impacts activities.)

After attending four previous meetings, Katie Mills, Ph.D., says she appreciated the virtual opportunities, like the coffee chats, built into the meeting’s agenda. “They allowed me to reconnect with people I was looking to meet with at the actual conference,” says Mills, who is Co-Director of the K-12 STEM Center at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering. “It also allowed me time to build on ideas that were generated by one of the panels.”  

The members of ARIS form a tight-knit community and this annual meeting has become a family reunion of sorts. Keeping those connections alive and making new ones were top priorities for Renoe and the other Summit organizers. “We’re always open and inclusive. But making sure we stayed that way was at the forefront for us as we went online,” Renoe says. For example, organizers made sure captioning was available for all videos, that a live captioner was present during the event and that those who needed one had a personal captioner.

Going virtual allowed the Summit to be more inclusive in another way: the low cost and lack of travel made it possible for more people to attend. Typically, 150-175 people register for the face-to-face event. About 258 people registered for the online one. Texas A&M’s Miller, for example, said he has a small travel budget that only allows for him to attend the meeting every year. But, this year, he was able to have a member of his staff join the virtual meeting, too. “He came away with a list of resources we can now share on our curated website,” Miller says.

Future of Virtual Summits

Renoe says ARIS Summits will probably return to in-person meetings when that becomes feasible, again. Still, experiencing the success of the virtual meeting has given her a new perspective. “I am no longer afraid of what a virtual meeting could look like and I see the benefits of it. Now we know when it’s done well, it can be really good. And, with the lessons we learned this year, we could really do something spectacular.” Still, it’s just not the same for people who look at an event as a family reunion. “This community is particularly close. I don’t think we would ever go strictly virtual unless financial constraints — or something like this pandemic — made that happen. But I think that a combination of virtual and in-person definitely could be in the mix.”