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December 15, 2022

What Are Broader Impacts (NSF)?

If you've ever applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—or are considering doing so—you may have encountered the term "broader impacts." What does this mean, exactly? And why is it important? Here's everything you need to know about your Broader Impacts section in any proposal.

For many researchers, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the holy grail of grant funding. After all, who wouldn't want their work to be supported by an organization that's dedicated to advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? But before you can even dream of winning an NSF grant, you need to understand what the agency considers during its review process. One important criterion is known as "Broader Impacts." Keep reading to learn more about it!

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What are NSF's Broader Impacts (BI)?

As one of the largest funders in global scientific literacy and public engagement, the National Science Foundation has created a "Broader Impacts" requirement for research and education proposals that it receives. The Broader Impacts sections of proposals push scientific researchers to consider how their research might impact the rest of the world.

Broader Impacts requirements can be found in requests for proposals (RFPs) at the undergraduate and graduate level all the way up to seasoned researchers and large ticket grants. The first time they're encountered, they can be somewhat off putting, especially to people who haven't considered the question at all in their work.

As an NSF reviewer for at least one program, though, Broader Impacts are often what help me separate out the good proposals from the great. If two proposals are conducting similar research (budget, topic, or other similarities), and one has a well thought out Broader Impacts section, it tends to score higher.

An example of winning Broader Impacts (in my opinion)

Example: one proposal is trying to disentangle the intraspecific competition of butterfly species in the eastern US, and one is trying to do so in the Midwest. In the Broader Impacts section of the first proposal, the authors talk about the benefits of butterflies to women, persons with disabilities, and people of color -- as pollinators, as aesthetic enjoyment, as recreation opportunities. The authors recognize the benefit, but they may not propose any activities to translate their research into something that will benefit society and contribute to science at the same time.

The second set of authors also talk briefly about the well being of individuals as it relates to butterflies. But they then go on to propose that, as part of their research, they will create a citizen science component that will be accessible to people with disabilities and underrepresented minorities in the outdoor recreation arena. Suddenly, there's a partnership proposed between academia, industry, and nonprofit groups to create a long-term citizen science monitoring project for tracking butterfly demographics and competition.

Broader Impacts can feel like a rabbit hole to someone who is strictly a scientist. But incorporating your Broader Impacts directly into your research will contribute to the achievement of your lab, it will help you develop partnerships between academia, industry, and nonprofits, and most importantly: it will improve the world.

How do you identify and articulate BI in your research proposal?

It is easiest to identify and articulate your Broader Impacts as you develop the proposal. Reviewers can usually tell when BI are an afterthought. To me, at least, seeing that BI are an afterthought makes me feel like the application is less competitive.

BI should be complementary to the project, and should have a positive impact on non-academics. Only 2/3rds of high school students enroll in college directly after high school, but only half of those go on to graduate. Even less go on to graduate school. A tiny fraction will remain in the academia industry. And others may not ever have the opportunity to read scientific literature or understand some of the key concepts that scientists internalize.

When we frame our Broader Impacts as an academic-only activity, we are excluding the majority of individuals in society. So I always appreciate when people take time to create BI that will improve personal development at any level, and development of a diverse globally competitive STEM-literate society.

I'll likely write more about BI in later blogs, but here are some ideas for complementary BI activities that would fit easily into any proposal:

  • Citizen science: demography, bioblitz, high school lesson curricula
  • NGO resources: fact sheets, audio or video productions, or technical support provided to volunteer and charity organizations
  • Partnerships: including industry, nonprofits, local government, and educator development at any stage of your proposal
  • Pilots and patents: Pilot projects and patents that improve the economic competitiveness of the project you're developing. This is less likely in ecology, but still possible. Just make sure to keep it concrete instead of theoretical.

Final thoughts: How can NSF's BI assessment criteria help you to enhance the impact of your research project and career development activities?

If your proposal includes genuine thoughts about Broader Impacts, it's going to contribute to the achievement of science on the whole. You'll be able to sleep at night knowing that you've done your best to impact the world. You've improved well being of individuals in your community or the country. And, you've probably won some grant money.

Broader Impacts aren't hard if you understand the reasoning behind them: to improve the world in which we live. Under that umbrella, your Broader Impacts become something to be proud of, to benefit society and public engagement with everyone in your community.

If you need help with your Broader Impacts, I am available for consultation. Please just reach out! I'm waiting to hear from you.

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