Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

catenary_bikeThis week, I just got my fourth of four submitted proposals rejected. I am not unhappy because I am already revamping the first two, which were reviewed quite well, and I think they will be written even better and get even better reviews (and perhaps some money?) in the next round. I also got a really nice WomanOfScience friend to help me jazz them up. They were good science, but quite dull-sounding. She just batted 1000 on her last 7 proposals, so she knows her sh!t. For the most part, I agreed with the criticisms of the reviewers. They were valid, and there are ways to make my proposals better. As I have always said, “Criticism: Take It.” I will take it and gladly ask for more.

But, I have a bone to pick. Let me quote one of my reviews (I know people don’t usually do this, but it is important you see what was written to understand).

Strengths:
The PIs have an outstanding record of mentoring students from underrepresented backgrounds.
Weaknesses:
The broader impact work is already ongoing, and new efforts are not described.

Notice this weakness. It is a weakness that I am already strong in broader impacts. THAT is a WEAKNESS! How? What should I do? Invent yet another class to take up more of my time so I publish fewer papers every year? Or should I mentor more than 6-10 undergraduates in independent research projects per year? Should fewer of these students be from under-represented groups? Because those students take longer to mentor because they are worried their parents will be evicted or deported while they are away at school, and that takes up too much of my time? Or perhaps I should do yet a 5th outreach activity to encourage women and girls of color to join STEM – maybe invent my own because the ones I am doing with established groups, such as Girls Inc, are blasé. I mean, everyone does it, right? WRONG! No! I will not take this criticism. This is NOT a weakness. I am not weak in broader impacts because I am doing so fucking much already, and to say this is a weakness is asinine and ridiculous.

But, I take criticism… Maybe there is another problem that I can solve? Maybe they don’t realize how much I do. I mean they have my name and record (and they can easily find me online), but I can only list FIVE synergistic activities in my 2-page long biosketch. My full CV is a whopping 25 pages long. The parts describing my teaching and service take up 10 pages of real estate and include 6 separate funded grants just for teaching and mentoring activities – that are in a separate section from my research funding. But, I can’t include all that in my biosketch. I can only include 5 synergistic activities. FIVE! That doesn’t even cover the funded teaching/mentoring work I do – let alone the unfunded work.

I could list all this in my proposal, but there isn’t really space. And if I did, I would be using up space I should be using for the more serious endeavor of science. I could put a link to my website in the proposal, but that is actually not allowed (despite having seen it in so many other proposals). I am afraid to not follow the rules and have my grant rejected for such a stupid reason. So, I don’t put in a URL to my lab website that lists all this work.

So how do I let them know, succinctly, yet firmly, that: No, I will not be doing any NEW Broader Impacts to satisfy their twisted idea that every new NSF grant must have yet another mentoring, outreach, or teaching activity to accompany it?

I am thinking of writing a statement such as this (let me know what you think)…

Broader Impacts:

In this section, I describe my commitment to teaching and mentoring women and under-represented minority students to train them to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, educators, and creators. The criticism that these efforts are “ongoing” and that “no new efforts are being established” is true, and I will likely get that critique as I usually do. But, I would like to point out that I participate in 15 other broader impact activities that cannot be fit into the 5 allowed in the biosketch nor in this document. I do not see the need nor the reason to create another mentoring or educational activity for myself in order to obtain this grant to perform research when I am already, as a woman in a male-dominated field, so over committed to teaching and outreach. Indeed, in a recent survey of my male colleagues in my department, I participate in 10x as many outreach activities as they do. So, there is no need for me to create anything new to make sure I am disseminating my science, educating the youth, or have a high quantity of mentoring and teaching activities. I am already doing what you want me to do.

Further, the criticism that I am not creating anything new or unique is not correct. I train 6-10 students per year. That is approximately 2-10x as many undergraduates as my colleagues (actually, some take zero undergraduates, but one should not divide by zero), creating research opportunities that are unique for each student. My students present at national conferences and many have published their work. To each of these students, their work, commitment, and time in the lab is unique and new for them. Together, we are creating new science and new experiences. Many of them have never solved a problem without a known answer prior to this work. So, I reject the critique that my broader impacts are not “new.”

Additionally, the fact that my laboratory is a diverse environment in terms of gender, religion, race, and ethnicity is also novel. Each new student adds to that novelty, that flavor, and that uniqueness. So, I believe that it is incorrect to say that my broader impacts are not “new.” Perhaps the idea of undergraduates performing research in a culturally diverse setting is not new to you, but it is certainly new to them (and it is unique within my institution).

Finally, if the reviewers need me to do something new for every NSF proposal, I will inevitably have to do one less thing that I am already committed to and maintaining through shear force of will. The activities I do are not complete in 3-year increments. I do not complete them with the completion of the grant. My goal is to sustain these activities. Thus, I cannot start something new every three years with the start of each new funded proposal unless I stop doing something else. If I did drop something, that would mean one less committee would have a smart, strong, female required for diversity. One more program will be lacking a woman to represent my entire field and gender to local middle school students. One more student will not be given the opportunity to try her hand at research despite her mother, her society, and yes, even herself, telling her that she should not. The things that I describe, that I am already committed to, are not mere whims to me. They are not things I do to pad my CV or to make you happy to fund me. They are part of the service I do to the community and to society to educate the young people of this country. I am sorry if what I do is not enough for you; if my students are not enough for you, but this is about all I can do.

So, what do you think? Perhaps I won’t write this after all, but maybe just put a link in my proposal to this post. (wink) Let me know what you think. Post or comment here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Comments on: "New Broader Impacts Statement" (4)

  1. Susan Roberts said:

    I love this approach. I would shorten it to 1 paragraph and put it in the next proposal. I’d leave out the comparison to men. I’m going to do this is my next proposal as I get the same comments!

  2. HusbandOfScience said:

    I have never had a comment like that for my much more meager, but adequate, broader impacts.

  3. I would call the program manager to ask about this. There was a time when NSF weighed innovation as a requirement in BI, but that trend has passed and they now seem to recognize that they want innovation in science and commitment in BI. Mine has been giving explicit instructions to panels that “ongoing successful broader impact efforts” should be weighed at least as strongly as new ones. It is possible you got a reviewer who didn’t get the memo, but I suspect that would not have been a deciding factor on your proposal. It is worth asking…

  4. Definitely a call to the program manager sounds warranted. He/she should be managing the expectations of the panel so that this doesn’t happen. The main point is that if the NSF continues to fund your amazing science, the side bonus is that you will be able to continue the established, proven outreach efforts – how can this be a bad thing? I’m all for outreach, innovation in education, and all that stuff, but at the same time, there are only 24 hours in a day and our job has changed so drastically from the job of a science professor 30 years ago…

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