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Helping the National Science Foundation Commit Its Resources Wisely and Well

Technology and Society Professor Developing a New Tool to Measure Potential Impacts of Research Proposals

Professor Thomas Woodson of the Department of Technology and SocietyThe mission of the National Science Foundation (NSF), as mandated by Congress, is to fund research that has “universal” benefits. In other words, the impact of any research funded by NSF should benefit the whole country’s health, prosperity and welfare regardless of socio-economic status or other demographic criteria. However, there is currently no effective inclusivity measure of NSF-funded research. This may result in research delivering more benefits to advantaged communities and increasing inequality.

This is the disconnect Professor Thomas Woodson of the Department of Technology and Society within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences wants to address. Professor Woodson has received a $274,000 grant from NSF to develop a model to more accurately predict the true expected impacts of research proposals to ensure that only those projects that fulfill the “universal benefit” mandate are funded.

“For the past twenty years, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has required scientists to discuss broader impacts (BIs) to show that their research extends beyond the laboratory,” states Professor Woodson. “However, the current methods of assessing BI activities fail to account for three factors: the immediacy and inclusiveness of the BI activities, along with the impact the BI activities have on scientific productivity. There is a critical need to reframe the BI criteria to measure these crucial factors.” 

The overall objective of this project is to use a new inclusion-immediacy criterion (IIC) to measure the immediacy and inclusion of NSF-sponsored research and determine how the different degrees of immediacy and inclusion relate to scientific output. Professor Woodson’s team will code and analyze project output reports from NSF-funded research going back to 2013 to create a system for accurately measuring potential outcomes of research proposals. An algorithm will be created to automate the coding and analysis process to reduce labor intensiveness and allow for quicker evaluation of research proposals. 

“Smart engineering education goes beyond teaching technical skills by including societal competences, such as inclusivity, equality, and marginalization. The more we know about the societal impact of cutting-edge research the better we can apply that knowledge educating tomorrow’s engineers,” said Wolf Schäfer, Chair of the Department of Technology and Society. “Thomas’ research will help measure the extent to which the societal impact criterion has increased inclusive innovation, reduced inequality, and empowered marginalized communities.”


- Dick Wolfe