Repost: NSF Broader Impacts

Considering I am reviewing a pile of NSF proposals right now, it seems like a good idea to repost this April 15, 2009. The number of proposals that FAIL on this sections is enormous, even after all these years. Don't be one of these proposals

I am continually amazed by how many people completely blow this section off. In theory, NSF weighs this portion of the grant on equal footing with the science. I know that this doesn't happen in practice, but they do actually care about it. I finally got the last of my grant reviews off my desk for this round and I saw nothing but the bare minimum of effort put into this section, and you know what? I called people on it in my review. Since there has been some recent advice about grant writing around here, I thought I would put together my thoughts on the broader impacts section for those of you writing NSF grants out there (and other agencies might have similar requirements).

Read the guidelines on what NSF is looking for and make an effort to meet their requirements! This may seem really obvious, but almost every grant I read this round did not do this. The criteria are as follows:

•How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?

•How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?

•To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?

•Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?

•What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

If your proposal details science that blows my socks off, I'm not going to care if you don't put in much effort to your BI section because it should not hold up great science. But the other 98% of us, need to make a fucking effort. You need to at least touch on most, if not all, of the above points. Some of the points can be addressed quickly - for instance, saying that all sequence data will be deposited in GenBank - but it is a good idea to deal with each one.

Do not use the BI section to talk about how much your science will affect other fields! This is not what NSF means by broad (see above). You should bring this up, but in the intellectual merit section.

Commit more than a few sentences to this section, preferably a page or more. When turning in one's review, there is a separate section to comment on the BI merits. Give your reviewer something more to talk about than a paragraph.

If possible, it is a really good idea to include some money in your budget for your BI goals. I know it seems odd the NSF would want you to add money into a budget, but money = accountability. If you put money for a workshop into the grant and it is left over at the end, they can ask you why you didn't follow through on the BI. If you promise to organize a symposium at some conference (which screams no BI effort, BTW), there is no way for NSF to know whether or not you followed through.

Partner with existing programs at your institution. This makes your life easier because the existing program will likely write part of the BI section and help organize whatever it is that you are proposing. Also, NSF like to see cross-talk between researchers and on-going programs that they have already put money into. Even better is if you can say that you will provide half the money for XXX and have the existing program kick in half. Again, there is a financial commitment from both sides, indicating a willingness to partner.

Make it viable. There is a delicate balance between doing something worth doing and proposing something that will suck up more time than it should. This is where leaning on infrastructure already in place will allow you to get more done for your time "buck".

It takes a bit of creativity and some talking to some of the centers or programs at your institution, but it is really not difficult to come up with a BI section that will make reviewers say "that'll work". So few applications actually put in any effort, that those which do, stand out.

13 responses so far

  • Tigger says:

    BI is a bullshit section. Good to have a reminder that some reviewers at least look at it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Like it or not, it is a criterion of evaluation. Ignore it at your own peril.

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  • Dave Munger says:

    My wife was on the review panel for NSF graduate fellowships and I can assure you they do take BI into account. They are serious about it.

  • Odyssey says:

    @Tigger:
    It is far from bullshit. Go read the NSF's mission statement. This is a big part of what they do.

  • Tigger says:

    My BI sections have actually been received favorably in past grants, with the reviewers commenting on them in detail. It is just the science section that needs some work...

    Mission statements are bullshit too.

  • Dusty says:

    I've always wondered this: do pseudonymous science bloggers ever tip reviewers, etc. off about their online presence for the purpose of 'broader impact' type criteria? Or would that defeat the point?

  • Dave Munger says:

    Tigger: Obviously the science matters more than the BI. Otherwise, the NSF would award all its grants to bloggers and teachers. But that doesn't mean that they're bullshitting about BI. Given two equal applications on the science side, they'll always pick the one with better BI. They might even pick an application with somewhat *worse* science if the BI is excellent.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I've never done this, nor seen it done. I would think you would need to have a specific "science to the people" type blog, (like Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science) in order to qualify as any sort of BI. Even then, I wouldn't depend on it as my only BI, because reviewers might not 'get it'.

  • GMP says:

    So few applications actually put in any effort

    I am a bit surprised by this, and a couple of the comments you received...
    In my experience, people bend over backwards to have a kick-ass BI, as it's accepted that a good BI is a way to further strengthen an otherwise technically strong proposal, but it can totally sink the whole proposal if the it sucks. At least in my directorate, I cannot remember the last time I saw even a ho-hum BI, let alone a terse or nonexistent one: they are all uniformly excellent, with outreach to women, minorites, industry, broader public, new courses being developed, stuff being disseminated over the web, outreach to K-12...
    I wonder if different directorates differ in how strictly they enforce the BI criteria...

  • proflikesubstance says:

    GMP, I would bet there is a direct correlation between enforcement of the BI section and quality of said section. I have seen proposals from pretty much every BIO Organization (Except DBI) and there is a huge range of BI quality. I would say maybe 20% try and get away with pulling the "I will teach stuff related to this proposal and there might be a minority student in my class" kind of approach. Either those people still don't get why their proposals and getting tanked or enough proposals like that get through.

  • [...] said, for a variety of reasons (most notably, Broader Impacts, yo) I have gotten involved in a program aimed at producing teaching modules for grade 6-12 science [...]

  • [...] reviewers any easy negative thing to say. It's really not hard to come up with something if you take advantage of existing programs. This section also tends to be the last thing a reviewer reads, so don't leave them on a down [...]

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