Friday, December 05, 2008

So you want a piece of the NSF pie? Broader Impacts.

As before, necessary disclaimers can be found here.

The dreaded Broader Impacts... This is the place many of the proposals I've reviewed have significant weaknesses. It used to be you could just pay lip service to these. Half a page max at the end of the proposal would be plenty. Not anymore. The NSF has instructed its reviewers to take these very seriously. And I can assure you the Program Officers take them very, very seriously. So when you write a proposal destined for the NSF, you need to take the broader impacts very seriously.

Let's start with why NSF requires broader impacts - understanding this can help formulate some for your proposal. It is important to understand that the NSF will not give you a grant just to do research. Read their mission statement:

To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense (NSF Act of 1950).

Note that it's promote the progress of science. That's much more than just funding research. The NSF's mission includes science education and training, and dissemination of scientific knowledge to the broader population. That's where the broader impacts criteria come from.

So what are broader impacts? The place to start is with the NSF Grant Proposal Guide. Find the section on review criteria and specifically that part dealing with the broader impacts. As you will see these are split into two categories:

  • Integration of Research and Education
  • Integrating Diversity into NSF Programs, Projects, and Activities

Basically it comes down to how you're going to tie education and training into your research activities and how you're going to go about improving diversity within science. The NSF has kindly put together a crib sheet describing how you might address these. It can be downloaded via at (for some reason I can't get Blogger to publish this as a link...). These are just suggestions and nobody in their right mind would propose to tackle all of them. Pick and choose those that work for your circumstances. Be creative and come up with new ones.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to address the broader impacts.

Integration of research and education:

This is the easier of the two criteria to deal with. It's important to understand here that "education" includes training, teaching and dissemination.

Training- In your proposal you want to talk about how you're going to involve trainees in your research. Trainees can include undergrads, grad students and postdocs. You could just say they will be involved, but it's much better to provide specific examples of how they will be involved. For example, what pieces of your project would be suitable fodder for undergrad researchers? Some verbiage describing how your trainees will be trained can also help.

Involving undergrads (and possibly high school students) is a very good thing to do (at least in NSF's view). And can be very rewarding for the PI as well. If you can, write an undergrad or two into each budget year. And specifically state that you will actively encourage even more undergrads to join your lab and that you will apply for REU supplements to support them (read up on these - it's easy money and really looks good when you go to renew your NSF grant). And don't forget to tout all the great work you've done with undergrads in the past.

Teaching- You can keep this as simple as stating that you will integrate the results of your research into your teaching (about the minimum in terms of addressing this, and really all I do), through to getting involved in teaching at K-12 schools. Another possibility is to host high school science teachers over the summer. The NSF has a whole program devoted to funding this kind of thing.

Dissemination- It's a given that you're going to publish and present your data at meetings etc. The difference here is that you need to explicitly state that. And describe how your trainees are going to be disseminating as well. Don't forget to budget funds for these activities, including funds to send trainees to meetings. It's important to back these things up with a real commitment - money.

If you have other opportunities to disseminate the results of your research (e.g. you've been invited to write a review or book chapter), talk about those. The book I recently edited is broader impact/dissemination fodder I count tout. Are you depositing stuff in publically-accessible databases? That's more dissemination stuff.


You can address this separately from the above, or integrated within it. Either works.

What the NSF wants here is some description of how you are going to try to involve people from traditionally under-represented (in science) groups in your research program. I've always found this the most difficult to address. You want to write something that you actually have a chance to succeeding at. If you read the NSF Broader Impacts crib sheet ( you can get some reasonable ideas. Collaborations with PI's who are, or who work with under-represented people count. As do collaborations with faculty at four-year colleges. The ultimate is to have members of under-represented groups working in your lab.

If you have any kind of track record of doing any of this, tout it loudly and clearly.

One last word of advice. Addressing the broader impacts sufficiently is going to require valuable real estate in your 15 page proposal. I don't know how much would be considered too much, but I can tell you less than a page will likely doom your grant. In my last two NSF proposals (both renewals, one that was funded in 2004 and one that has just been recommended for funding) I used at about two pages (not counting the space used to describe the broader impact work done with the prior period of funding).


Professor in Training said...

Again, very interesting. The REU program is also definitely something I'll be looking into as I think this would be a great fit with our program. Thanks :)

J. Britt Holbrook said...

Interesting post. You might be interested in some of my research on the Broader Impacts Criterion (BIC):

I'd love to include a permalink to your post somewhere on the site. Let me know if you're okay with that.

Odyssey said...

I'd be fine with that. And I'll check out your research.