An interdisciplinary team of researchers at UNT has received $393,688 from the National Science Foundation to examine how federal science agencies try to make their research more relevant to 21st-century society.
The UNT research team received the funding from a new NSF program, the Science of Science and Innovation Policy. SciSIP's purpose is to fund research into how publicly funded science can be made more relevant to the challenges facing society in the 21st century.
Other universities that received SciSIP grants from NSF include the University of California at Berkeley, Duke University, Harvard University and Northwestern University.
J. Britt Holbrook
During the next three years, UNT researchers from the departments of biological sciences and library and information sciences as well as philosophy and religion studies will study how five science agencies use the process of peer review to ensure that the research they fund is socially relevant. The researchers are calling their project Comparative Assessment of Peer Review, or CAPR, pronounced "caper."
The agencies chosen for the study are the NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Dutch Technology Foundation.
J. Britt Holbrook, research assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion Studies and co-principal investigator on the grant, says peer review of grant proposals "entails a responsibility of scientists not only to other scientists to conduct the reviews fairly, but also to society to conduct the reviews so that society's money is well spent."
At the NSF, he says, the peer review process involves two criteria for project selection: the intellectual merit of the proposed activity and the proposed research's broader impacts in society.
"As far as intellectual merit is concerned, scientists are in familiar territory," Holbrook says. "Scientists are obviously experts about science, and they have some shared standards about what counts as good science. So, intuitively, it makes sense to have them assess the intellectual merit of proposed scientific activities."
Assessing the proposed research's broader impact on society may be more difficult for many scientists because considering societal impacts often requires interdisciplinary expertise, he says.
"Scientists are not generally trained as science educators, and most don't have the expertise to evaluate their own education and outreach efforts. Although they may have some idea that they are onto something that may be worth something in terms of money, they won't be able to forecast the economic returns on the public's investments in their research unless they are economists," he says. "A social scientist or a philosopher probably cannot tell you which nanotechnology proposal contains the best science; however, a social scientist or philosopher is probably better equipped than a physicist or materials scientist to address the societal implications of nanotechnology."
Robert Frodeman, professor of philosophy and religion studies, will be the principal investigator for CAPR. In addition to Holbrook, co-principal investigators are Warren Burggren, dean of the UNT College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of biological sciences; William Moen, associate professor of library and information sciences; and Carl Mitcham, professor of liberal arts and international studies at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.
Holbrook says the research team will share what they learn about peer review with UNT faculty members to help them write better research proposals. The team may also coordinate some faculty workshops on the Broader Impacts Criterion that the NSF uses in considering proposals, as well as forming "BIC Teams," he says.
"The idea behind BIC Teams is to marshal our resources here at UNT to help researchers who are applying for NSF grants do an outstanding job — not just a decent job, but something that really makes UNT stand out — of addressing the broader impacts of their research," he says.
Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service
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