The Evolution of the NSF-Funded BEACON Center: 2010-201

This post is by Patty Farrell-Cole, Ph.D., Marilyn Amey, Ph.D., Sarah Fitzgerald (Ph.D. candidate) and Alex Gardner (Ph.D. student)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) holds expectations of transformational research and education for Science and Technology Centers (STC). In 2010, the NSF-funded BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action officially began its quest to produce transformative, synergistic research through an inclusive, collaborative culture that crosses disciplinary and institutional boundaries. To obtain unbiased formative insights on the workings of the Center, BEACON leadership commissioned us (a higher education research team) to conduct formative evaluations of its organizational effectiveness and impact. In this blog we tell a short story on the evolution of BEACON.

Since the beginning, BEACON’s leadership has had high expectations, including being an exemplary Center to NSF (L&M Optical Outcome #6, BEACON Strategic Plan, 2015, https://www3.beacon-center.org/). In the seven years of our studies, we have found that BEACON is a complex, non-linear system comprised of multiple institutions, colleges, departments, faculty, administrators, post docs, and students. We also learned that bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines and multiple institutions to answer difficult questions is not simple; it is a “puzzle of complexity” (Horton, late 1800s).

To gather both broad and deep understandings of the effectiveness of BEACON, we needed to gather data broadly across institutions and constituent groups using multiple methods. Since 2010, we have developed and conducted (a) multiple and diverse surveys focusing on the organization, research faculty, or the next generation of scientists; (b) individual and chair interviews; and (c) focus groups with post docs and graduate students.

2010-11 — We started our formative evaluation work by conducting a BEACON organizational baseline study focusing on mission, leadership, management, and culture. Our findings illustrated a Center that was in its forming stage where members acted with excitement but, at the same time, were unsure of their role, the future of the Center, or how the Center fully operated. The forming stage required high direction by the leaders, such as creating policies and procedures for funding, communication mechanisms, and a member activity data system.

2011-12 – Based on the baseline organizational findings, we conducted interviews with department chairs, who could be “gatekeepers” to involvement with BEACON. We found many chairs, even those at MSU, did not know much about BEACON. We also learned that participation in BEACON was perceived differently for many reasons, including variation in tenure and review policies across departments represented in the STC. In addition, we focused on the needs of the “next generation faculty and researchers” (i.e., doctoral students, post docs, and assistant faculty) to complete five short surveys on topics that were of interest to them, including 1) BEACON & department/college support and funding, 2) BEACON inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional work, 3) BEACON outreach and education, 4) BEACON career and professional development/mentoring, and 5) BEACON research thrusts. These surveys were important to assess BEACON sustainability and the findings helped BEACON leaders improve the communication, funding, and decision making processes.

2012-13 – We conducted a follow-up organizational evaluation survey and found the Center had committed itself to working on organizational aspects that were critical to its success (e.g., communications, funding, transparency). At the time, 79% of BEACONites indicated BEACON was achieving its mission and goals very well/well, and 92% told us BEACON impacted their own research.

2013-14 – Based on the 2013 organizational evaluation, we started studying the impact of BEACON in preparation for the NSF renewal grant proposal. We decided to conduct interviews with key faculty from the five universities and overwhelmingly heard that BEACONites were together building a new way of studying evolution in action. A few quotes:

These are important scientists doing important work and BEACON will definitely have impact on the field of evolutionary science. There is no doubt about it.

I would say that in the life sciences, it has made this an intellectually vibrant place to work. I mean, I found [my institution] deadly boring before BEACON showed up … BEACON has completely changed that.

BEACON has encouraged, influenced and brought together researchers from different disciplines to “pursue questions that we wouldn’t have been able to pursue. It has changed the direction and flow of some of the research.”

It’s had a profound impact on guiding research, generating a new skill set, not only in me, but in my students a well … giving me a great layer of interdisciplinary landscape.

2014-15 – Unlike a stand-alone organization or corporation which has control of human resources and operational processes and procedures, BEACON operates within the rules and cultures of five different institutions in addition to its own rules and culture. And even within the institutions, the culture and processes vary significantly across departments and disciplines. Our organizational evaluation survey findings in 2015 showed a Center that was staying true to its mission and is pretty successful operating within the rules and culture that the leaders cannot change.

Even as a complex system comprised of diverse members, we view BEACON as a conduit that has created a one-stop shop for faculty, postdocs and students to learn and study evolution in action across disciplines. BEACON is exemplifying the new world of research where collaboration is vital. We found that BEACON is providing opportunities to learn about one another including the work individuals conduct and want to conduct, the disciplinary cultures they are entwined in, and the research knowledge they create. “We are in a synergistic way, stronger when we look at these questions together [transcending disciplines] and interact with each other,” stated one BEACON faculty member. And research is not the only “exemplary” aspect of BEACON to NSF. NSF has also been very impressed with BEACON’s diversity and education efforts, which have increased significantly since its inception.

Through our studies, we recognize that creating a successful multi-institutional research collaborative takes forethought, maintenance, and on-going effort in order to thrive and achieve its mission and goals. Unlike university leaders, those involved in research collaborations often focus only on the work of the project and assume the context of the work derives organically or without much thought. Meeting the interdisciplinary and multi-institutional expectations of funders such as NSF requires intentional efforts from principal investigators, academic administrators, and faculty to foster learning organizations which support these important collaborations. Taking the context of faculty work into account while employing strategic leadership and organizational development strategies, and taking the context of faculty work into account, helps situate BEACON in ways that broaden the base of potential members rather than pit one set of goals and expectations against another. Garnering support from necessary gatekeepers and decision makers in these settings means more than obtaining signatures on grant proposals; it means developing effective, authentic, and on-going communication channels, promoting partnership outcomes and benefits, establishing means for socializing new members and building effective networks, while always keeping an eye on the future and long-term sustainability. As we have seen with BEACON, this approach to launching a multi-institutional research collaboration fosters a culture of continuous improvement and helps BEACON more effectively achieve its overall mission and goals.

2015-16 – This blog provides a glimpse into the work we have been conducting the past six years and is part one of two blogs. In 2016, we conducted a Social Network Analysis of BEACON, so please read the October 3 BEACON blog by doctoral students Sarah Fitzgerald and Alex Gardner. Social Network analysis is based on the intuitive notion that social patterns are important features of the lives of the individuals who display them and individual lives depend in large part on how each individual is tied into the larger web of social connections. Many believe, moreover, that the success or failure of organizations often depends on the patterning of their internal structure; this would include STCs such as BEACON and other multi-institution organizations. Through the SNA, we looked to answer, What is the pattern of collaboration between BEACON members?

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