Science: Impact or Engagement?
At last week's Wingspread Conference on Civic Engagement in Graduate Education, we devoted half a day to small group sessions focused on disciplinary areas. In the Natural Sciences and Engineering session, I proposed the deliberately provocative idea that scientific research, as it is currently carried out in this country, is generally engaged even if its practitioners don't view it that way. Nobody questioned the impact of scientific research on the modern world, but there was considerable dissent from the idea that it counts as civic engagement.
My argument is as follows: Most scientific research in universities is funded by federal agencies (NIH, DOE, DOD, USDA) that have goals in mind for the money they spend. There is, therefore, a reciprocal partnership (a key piece of the definition of engagement) in which the "community" tells the university what its problems are, and chooses - through an advisory process - which ones it is willing to support. It's true that investigator-initiated research is a heavy part of the mix, but whether an investigator-initiated proposal gets funded depends on its congruence with agency priorities as much as on its intrinsic quality.
Even NSF, the home of "pure research", now judges proposals on the criterion of broader societal impact as well as scientific quality.
In the biomedical arena, research is also funded by disease-oriented societies (American Cancer Society, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, etc.). These organizations are even more involved in the choice of research priorities than are the federal agencies. Rare diseases often have patient advocacy groups that - though they may not provide much funding - are passionate in encouraging medical research, supporting national and world-wide databases, and participating actively in information networks.
Therefore, I contend that most of the scientific research carried out in universities fits the definition of engagement, so long as the definition of "community" is suitably broadened. Community should mean not just our home-town neighbors, but any group of people - possibly across the country or around the world - with whom we share interests and whose lives are entwined with ours in actively reciprocal ways.
In my view, the question is not "Is science engaged?", but rather "How can we persuade university science faculty, and their graduate students, that they should recognize and value engagement as an intrinsic part of what they do?"