NSF Broader Impacts

Apr 15 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

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 hold up great science. But the other 98% of us, 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.

11 responses so far

  • Anonymous says:

    Ditto. I nailed them to the walls about the broader impacts. A few of the ones I reviewed seemed to think that adding A woman PI was broader impact (and that was all that was listed for BI! and one was a resub for which they got nailed for not having BI previously!!), that training students was broader impact (uh, no, that's part of "advisor" duties), or that doing papers in collaboration with other-field researchers was broader impact (uh, no - how about the "little people", huh?). It floored me to see how little they gave a shit. Incorporating school groups, working with teachers, etc. is actually alot of fun, but the old fuddy duds couldn't be bothered with outreach. I'm glad someone else is taking them to task. I was pretty brutal.

  • Odyssey says:

    Nicely put. I particularly like the idea of budgeting funds for BI's. The BI's are part of NSF's mission. You wouldn't expect NIH to fund a project with zero medical/biological relevance. You shouldn't expect NSF to fund projects with insignificant BI's. I too slam proposals that don't address this adequately.Anon: I will disagree slightly on training students not being BI's. Depends on who you're training. The UgS PLS has been writing about lately would likely count as a BI. Specifically reaching out to under-represented/disadvantaged groups for trainees would count. Just don't make that all you're doing.

  • I need a name says:

    So, it's not enough to just say "we're going to involve undergraduates". I admit I usually gloss over the BI (I figure why do they need me to comment on that part, I'm not an expert on BI), but sometimes people are just asking for it.I wish I was done my reviews. Two down, two to go.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    No, it is not enough to say that undergrads will be involved, but if you have a specific plan to recruit and involve minority undergrads and utilize university programs already in place to do that, then you would be okay. The BI should be something that you would not already do anyway, and I think that's what Anon meant about training students was not enough. All of us involve undergrads. I had one grant that said the data would be broadly distributed because the PI's research would inform their teaching. No shit. We all do that and it's expected of us. You need be just slightly creative without giving yourself a second (or fifth) job.

  • Odyssey says:

    Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with creative BI ideas, but PLS has given some great pointers here. Odds are there is at least one group/office on campus that does outreach etc. that you could partner with. Trust me, every such group I've contacted has been delighted to help out.I like the idea of organizing a workshop (with money budgeted). I think I'll use that one in my next renewal.

  • Successful Researcher says:

    More grant writing advice can be found here.

  • Anonymous says:

    From the perspective of a grant *writer*, I would suggest that if nobody seems to give a sh!t about this, it may very well be NSF's fault as much as the grant writers. You can't design an entire program around pure basic research, then tack on a note saying that "broader impacts are just as important as intellectual merit," and expect people to suddenly know how to change their entire approach--when the rest of the grant structure remains exactly the same! If I'm going to make an effort, I'd like NSF to make an effort too, for fk's sake.

  • Anonymous says:

    From the perspective of a grant *writer*, I would suggest that if nobody seems to give a sh!t about this, it may very well be NSF's fault as much as the grant writers. You can't design an entire program around pure basic research, then tack on a note saying that "broader impacts are just as important as intellectual merit," and expect people to suddenly know how to change their entire approach--when the rest of the grant structure remains exactly the same! If I'm going to make an effort, I'd like NSF to make an effort too, for fk's sake.Also note: As far as I can tell the Project Summary, including both the "intellectual merit" and the "broader impacts," is supposed to be "no more than a page. That makes it a little difficult to write "preferably a page or more" on this.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I'm sorry, but I don't agree that NSF or reviewers don't care about the Broader Impacts. This might be PO or program specific, but my experience suggests that a crappy BI section can sink you. I've written plent yof these myself and even a bit of effort can go a long way. No matter how NSF has tacked the BI requirement on, it's there and it matters.

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