Broad Impacts and Narrow Perspectives: Passing the Buck on Science and Social Impacts

Social Epistemology 23 (3):183-198 (2011)
We provide a critical assessment of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) “broader impacts criterion” for peer review, which has met with resistance from the scientific community and been characterized as unlikely to have much positive effect due to poor implementation and adherence to the linear model heuristic for innovation. In our view, the weakness of NSF's approach owes less to these issues than to the misguided assumption that the peer review process can be used to leverage more societal value from research. This idea, although undoubtedly well-meaning, is fundamentally flawed. Retooling or refining the Broader Impacts Criterion does not alter the fact that conventional peer review, based on specialized scientific and technical expertise, is not up to the task of ensuring adequate judgements about social impact. We consider some possible alternative approaches to providing greater social impact in science and include in our assessment past and current efforts at NSF and throughout the federal research establishment that address, in some cases having addressed for decades, the intentions and goals of the Broader Impacts Criterion, albeit using alternate mechanisms. We conclude that institution-building and explicit and targeted policy-making are more useful and democratically legitimate approaches to ensuring broad social impacts
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