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Collective Impact

by Mike Brudzinski and the Collective Impact Committee

Dec 15, 2022

The Rationale for Implementing a Collective Impact Approach with SZ4D

SZ4D has important and ambitious plans to be “a community-driven scientific initiative that strives to fill in the major gaps in our understanding of geohazards by coordinating fundamental research and bringing together a range of historically disparate geologic sub-disciplines and scientists.” To accomplish these goals and develop a culture of inclusion requires a new approach to how our science is funded and organized. Previous similar efforts in the past few decades have largely operated in a model whereby NSF and other funders support the proposals that make the greatest impact with the least amount of resources within a limited timeframe. This model, known as the Isolated Impact model, creates minimal lasting effects on communities due to a short-term focus on rewards and costs, while motivating PIs to propose and conduct work by distinguishing their efforts from others in a culture of competition. In addition, the approach of relying on the NSF Broader Impacts criterion to build equity and capacity in the geosciences has been flawed in creating sustained social impact and has not leveraged evidence-based effective practices.

SZ4D seeks to be a community-driven scientific initiative that strives to fill in the major gaps in our understanding of geohazards by coordinating fundamental research and bringing together a range of historically disparate geologic sub-disciplines and scientists.

While this approach has accomplished a lot of science, the Isolated Impact model will not allow us to enact the transformative change in building equity and capacity necessary to create a more cooperative and sustainable approach to conducting the science as described in the SZ4D Implementation Plan. Instead, the Building Equity and Capacity with Geoscience (BECG) Integrative Group reviewed best practices and consulted with experts in order to recommend that SZ4D build a Collective Impact (CI) framework for accomplishing cooperative and inclusive science. The CI model is an approach to organize people from different disciplines around solving a specific set of problems using a structured form of collaboration. It is essentially the “how” to effectively achieve a big vision. The CI methodology is increasingly recognized as a necessary alternative to the Isolated Impact model, including by the White House Council for Community Solutions and the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine. NSF is already funding big proposals centered around the CI model, such as a ~$10M grant to the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Likewise, many scientific entities already use the “many users, one facility” approach of CI, such as NASA missions and volcano observatories. Collective Impact simultaneously empowers a diverse community and ensures interdisciplinary progress. Not only will a CI model enable SZ4D to meet its broad goals, but it will lay the groundwork for the next generation of subduction zone scientists to achieve even bigger visions. If we want a more successful future for subduction zone science, we need to design SZ4D differently.

We thus contend that the goals and objectives outlined in the SZ4D Implementation Plan cannot be accomplished through PIs proposing isolated broader impact efforts as addenda to proposals primarily focused on physical science research. Instead, SZ4D PIs should be playing a role in a larger cooperative effort that is seeking to accomplish long-term broader impacts through a CI framework. The SZ4D community sees CI as an opportunity for transformative change, enhancing our ability to create more sustainable, positive outcomes for a more diverse set of participants. Previous research has shown that successful CI initiatives typically meet five criteria:

  1. a common agenda,

  2. a shared measurement system,

  3. mutually reinforcing activities,

  4. continuous communication, and

  5. a backbone organization.

When these five criteria can be met, the successful result observed involves cascading levels of linked collaboration. The SZ4D RCN has already helped to establish aspects of these criteria, most notably by agreeing on a common agenda with a shared vision through working groups, integrative groups, larger community meetings, and multiple rounds of feedback and revision to establish the Implementation Plan. A Collective Impact Committee (CIC) has been established within SZ4D governance to guide the development of the other critical elements of CI as the different components of SZ4D are constructed.

Ideas from the Collective Impact Committee for Coordinating SZ4D Proposals


Striving to achieve CI will take many forms as SZ4D progresses, and an immediate need that has arisen is how to help coordinate various SZ4D proposals. Since SZ4D is defined by the Implementation Plan, not the individuals participating in its governance, it is envisioned that the SZ4D community will seek funding for building the structures to achieve what is described in the Implementation Plan. The CI strategy is an open, structured form of collaboration to help ensure these pieces are designed to accomplish fully integrated research and capacity building goals, rather than disparate goals and efforts. As PIs consider proposals to build components of SZ4D, the CIC has developed an initial set of questions to help design proposals that actively generate CI:

  • How would the project accomplish what is outlined in the SZ4D Implementation Plan? (Common agenda)

  • How would the activities benefit the subduction zone community and how would involvement of the subduction zone community benefit the project? (Mutually beneficial activities)

  • How is the project designed to work with SZ4D governance? (Backbone organization)

  • How would the project create frequent communication and foster transparency with the subduction zone community? (Continuous communication)

  • How would the project assess its integration and coordination with SZ4D? (Shared measures)

  • How would the project encourage diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, justice, and sense of belonging? (BAJEDI)

  • How would the project develop equitable international partnerships that improve capabilities (e.g., skills, data, software, technology, understanding) for all scientists and stakeholders involved? (International collaboration)

Given the immediate interest of the community for guidance regarding the design of research proposals and the implementation of CI within the current funding structure, we focus here on the above specific questions. It should be noted that the community has voiced a variety of other aspects of what is considered CI, the committee will address those aspects in the future. At this point, the CIC will be working to provide a set of resources to illustrate more details on what successes look like and signs of incompleteness. In addition, CIC will be seeking to identify “shovel ready” mechanisms for coordination that people can include in their projects to help ensure integration. In the interim, CIC would be interested to meet with PI groups to provide feedback and answer questions related to addressing the CI components. Based on these early discussions, CIC plans to design a regularly scheduled webinar and a Frequently Asked Questions section on the SZ4D website to provide direct guidance to PIs in their construction and self-evaluation of projects to ensure CI. This process is not intended to be a form of gatekeeping. It is envisioned as a way to help PIs build proposals that integrate and coordinate with SZ4D in a way that would increase both their chances of funding and long-term impact on the subduction zone community.

When it comes to designing efforts to accomplish broader impacts that are aligned with SZ4D, the BECG chapter of the Implementation Plan is currently the best starting point. Developing a clearinghouse of connections to facilitate matchmaking between PIs and ongoing BECG-related efforts is a top priority and we look forward to starting to build the clearinghouse in the next three years under the current funding. In the meantime, prospective PIs can reach out to the BECG Integrative Group to discuss potential ideas and options.  PIs may benefit from coordinating with SZ4D and embracing the Collective Impact strategy in and of itself will have broader impacts in that the activities of the project will fit into a larger operation. This alone should increase the likelihood the results of the project will have impacts on the broader subduction zone community.

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