REPOST: NSF Broader Impacts

Well, there have been a number of hits today to my post about the NSF Bio Preprosals, mostly driven from Joan Strassmann's advice post on her blog and the Jabberwocky blog post. Tis the season for preproposals, so I am sure there are many PI's looking for any advice they can find on this new document. In keeping with that theme, I'm going to repost about Broader Impacts today. The post originally went up in 2009 and again in 2010, but I don't think the advice has changed much. Certainly the BI sections for the preproposals are going to require some thought to capture the promise in a shorter space, but this may still be helpful. Good luck to everyone writing away.

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.

8 responses so far

  • [...] proposal, pre-proposal, whatever–broad impacts are important, as PLS is reposting to his blog for the upteenth time. PLS maintains that BI’s are important to NSF and thus they should be [...]

  • Alex says:

    I teach at an undergraduate institution with a very large population of under-represented minorities. If I say that the grant will support undergraduate research assistants, most of whom will be minorities, is that a good BI, or is that just doing my F'ing job?

    If I say that I will develop some educational simulations that show results from the research, and use them in my class, is that good, or is that just doing my F'ing job?

    Assume that I have a good track record at mentoring students (evidenced by papers with undergrad first authors in journals with good impact factors, and students winning awards) and that the science described in the educational simulations is stuff that isn't yet in textbooks, and that I have the technical expertise to develop simulations.

    Some people tell me that this is an excellent BI, others say that it's ho-hum. That range of opinions, among people with experience reviewing, tells me that BI is poorly-defined and inconsistently applied. I mean, yes, I read the words that you cited above, but there's still the issue of how those words will be interpreted and applied.

  • CoR says:

    You know how you have one or two reviewers that just *get* your science whereas another couple don't have much to say? (Or think you suck?). I think the BI's are interpreted the same way--aka, it's always going to be reviewer dependent. My take on this is to do what you think is cool for outreach and education, and it is the relative lack of guideline that allows the development of a BI to be a creative thing.

  • ecologist says:

    The biggest problem I have with BI is that NSF has never figured out what it is supposed to be an impact of. Let's say I write a proposal to do some very advanced research involving cutting-edge experimental and mathematical stuff. That sounds good. Now let's say I want to argue for a BI that will involve K-12 education. Sorry, folks, but there is no way that the actual content of my research will connect to K-12 students, curriculum, or learning. But I can propose to do things for K-12 education that are vaguely related to my topic. That present basic material from my field of science. That give young students exposure to a real live scientist. Those might all be good things. But I could do them with or without the NSF support for my cutting-edge-experimental-analytical-awesomescience.

    I remember reading somewhere a favorable discussion of some chemists who, as BI activities on their NSF support, were helping to teach high school students about the concepts of pH. Basic material, not part of their research. These chemists could help high school students with pH with or without the content of their research. So why are those high school presentations considered an impact OF the funded research?

    In fact, I think that most BI activities are really public-service activities. They have nothing to do with the science in the proposal. Rather, they are a way to get us to spend some time and effort doing things that have impacts that people regard as good. If NSF really wants to impose a public-service tax on its funded research projects, then it should just call it that. Tying it to the content of the proposal, and pretending that it is an impact of that content, is deceitful and counter-productive.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Alex, it all depends on the pitch and who is in the room. You know, just like every other part of the grant. My advice in your case is simple - put some money in the budget to create the simulations and involve some undergrads in that effort. Then you have value added in both product and training for not a lot of extra effort on your part. The best BI sections make use of on-going efforts while adding something unique to the mix.

    Ecologist, I think you are right that the BI activities do not have to result from the work, but IME, reviewers like to see some tie in. Sometimes it's not a natural fit and making the tie in would require too much effort, which is also not a good thing. In your example it appears this might have been the case, which is when people generally go more public-service route because you can't have nothing. For the reviews I have done, however, I think those cases are the minority.

  • 123 says:


    I wonder what could be the BI for a MRI proposal of a tiny school in a region where every one else have the state of the art instrument and what we are asking is for a low end 300 MHz NMR.......

    apart from serving the underrepresented student population and training them for careers in science. We did obtain some letters of potential users of the instrument. However, it seems to be not enough to convince the reviewers.


  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't have a good feel for the BI requirements for MRI projects, but I would guess that highlighting the educational benefits of the instrument would be the way to go. In particular, you could try adding in some money for course development (not new courses, but maybe the development of some new lab modules) around the instrument and discuss the impact on some non-majors courses as well. Maybe there is a pre-health major that might benefit from knowing how an MRI works using the NMR?

  • [...] have been through this before. And before that. And before that. Yet still, I keep reading proposals where the PIsclear said [...]

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