Addressing Broader Impacts
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Addressing Broader Impacts
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal research agencies are increasingly emphasizing the need to justify not only the “intellectual merit” of proposed research, but also its “broader impacts.” The latter refers to the potential of the proposed project to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.
On this page we provide information on broader impacts and related requirements, some tips for addressing them, and campus resources to help you set up or connect with effective activities.
This web page is based on official NSF documents and information sessions as well as experience from BRDO staff and our colleagues. It is designed to help you understand and address broader impacts, but it does not in any way replace the instructions of a specific solicitation or NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide (part of the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide).
Jump to specific topics:
- What are “broader impacts”?
- NSF’s updated merit review criteria
- Examples of broader impacts activities
- Suggestions for developing a broader impacts plan
- Specifying broader impacts activities in your NSF proposal
- Resources for broader impacts
- Potential Partners for broader impacts activities
For questions about broader impacts, or to request assistance with your broader impacts plan,
1. What are “broader impacts”?
All NSF grant proposals are evaluated using two merit review criteria:
1) The intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and
2) The broader impacts resulting from the proposed activity.
While “intellectual merit” is about the potential to advance knowledge and encompasses the scientific research proposal, “broader impacts” deals with the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes (as defined in NSF's Grant Proposal Guide Section III.A.2).
Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions, a publication of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), is an excellent overview of broader impacts and is highly recommended.
Note that a number of other funding agencies also promote activities related to “broader impacts,” such as programs that promote research translation, societal impact, public understanding of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), education and training of the scientific workforce, and broadening participation in STEM.
According to NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide (Section II.C.2.d), broader impacts may be accomplished through:
- the research itself,
- activities directly related to specific research projects, or
- activities supported by, but complementary to the project.
The Guide goes on to explain that the broader impacts criterion promotes societally relevant outcomes beyond scientific knowledge, including, but not limited to:
- full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM;
- improved STEM education and educator development at any level;
- increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology;
- improved well-being of individuals in society;
- development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce;
- increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others;
- improved national security;
- increased economic competitiveness of the United States; and
- enhanced infrastructure for research and education.
For additional information on NSF guidelines and expectations, consult NSF’s Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file on merit review: http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/merit_review/mrfaqs.jsp
Effective January 2013, NSF’s merit review policy now calls for the same five elements to be considered in the review for both intellectual merit and broader impacts:
- What is the potential for the proposed activity to: (a) Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (intellectual merit); and (b) Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (broader impacts)?
- To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
- Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
- How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
- Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?
The significance of these elements now applying to both criteria is that reviewers are expected to consider explicitly the qualifications of the proposal team and the adequacy of the resources identified in the proposal for the broader impacts activities. Similarly, they could even consider, for example, the extent to which a proposal’s broader impacts plans are original or potentially transformative.
The National Science Board updated NSF’s policies for merit review in this 2012 report: National Science Foundation’s Merit Review Criteria: Review and Revisions, which are reflected in NSF’s revised Grant Proposal Guide (Section III.A).
Explore examples of NSF-funded broader impacts in the NSF Broader Impacts Special Report (November 2014). In 2013, NSF removed a list of examples that had been available in previous versions of its Grant Proposal Guide. To explain this change, the NSF noted: “References to the document containing examples illustrating activities likely to demonstrate broader impacts have been deleted. This was done to eliminate confusion over the document, which was often viewed as a prescriptive list of additional requirements instead of illustrative examples.”
Keeping this caveat in mind, you can still find the list in this NSF document, “Merit Review Broader Impacts Criterion: Representative Activities.” This document provides examples that fit within five components of the broader impacts criterion:
- Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning;
- Broaden participation of underrepresented groups;
- Enhance infrastructure for research and education;
- Broad dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding; and
- Benefits to society.
The document is clear that no one example is relevant to all proposals.
Below are four steps that can help in developing a broader impacts plan:
Step 1: Perform an inventory of internal factors:
- What are your strengths?
- What are you passionate about?
- What does your research lend itself to?
- What constraints (i.e. time, effort, budget, logistics) are you likely to encounter?
Step 2: Perform an inventory of external factors:
- Who is your target audience?
- What does your audience already know? What don't they know?
- What is the context?
- What exists already? What is missing?
- What potential partners could you enlist in this work?
Step 3: Define goals. Goals should be:
Step 4: Establish implementation plans:
- Timeline (with milestones)
- Effort, personnel
- Assessment (tied to goals)
Here are several basic elements for success:
- Provide sufficient detail (avoid leaving assumptions about the project plan to the reviewers).
- Integrate your education and research activities to the degree possible.
- Align the project with collaborators as appropriate.
- Include meaningful engagement with underrepresented groups.
- Show how the work will be sustained.
- Involve your whole lab if possible.
NSF proposal briefings (like this one, for example) have suggested key questions prospective investigators should consider in proposing research and broader impacts:
- What do you intend to do?
- Why do you want to do it?
- How do you plan to do it?
- How will you know if you succeed?
- What benefits would accrue if the project is successful?
Note: Some solicitations expect a more extensive broader impacts section than others. For example, NSF puts particular emphasis on the integration of research and education in its Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program (see NSF CAREER Program Solicitation 14-532 for details).
In its most recent update, effective January 2013, NSF’s Grant Proposal Guide (Section II.C.2.d) provides specific guidance for including broader impacts information in both the Project Summary and Project Description sections of proposals to the Foundation.
The Project Summary must include a statement on the broader impacts of the proposed research – proposals without one will be returned without review. The FastLane interface now includes a dedicated text box for this purpose. For other submission methods you should make a separate section/heading within your document.
The Grant Proposal Guide notes that the statement on broader impacts in the Project Summary “should describe the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.”
The Project Description of each proposal must contain a discussion of the broader impacts of the proposal as a separate section within the narrative. Proposals without this section will be returned without review.
NSF’s FAQ on merit review suggests content that should be included in this section:
|A well-written broader impacts section should include activities that are clearly described; have a well-justified rationale; and demonstrate creativity or originality, or have a basis in established approaches. The proposer should have a well-organized strategy for accomplishment of clearly stated goals; establish the qualifications of those responsible for the activities; and demonstrate sufficient resources for support. A plan should be in place to document the results.|
As you describe results from prior NSF support, make sure to also include results from the broader impacts activities. (Similarly, when a proposal is funded, the annual and final project reports should address progress in all activities of the project, including any activities intended to address the broader impacts criterion.)
Please also visit our pages on:
6. Resources for broader impacts here;
7. Potential partners for broader impacts activities for UC Berkeley faculty here;
8. Improving campus coordination of education and outreach here.