Broader impacts (NSF specific)

I thought today I would write down my thoughts on how I define broader impacts (BI) from an NSF perspective. First some background and a caveat: BI is one of two criteria that an NSF grant proposal is evaluated by (the other is intellectual merit). BI arrived at NSF as a criterion in 1996, but the notion really goes back to Vannevar Bush’s arguments for US R&D investments after the Second World War. You can read this in his report,  Science The Endless Frontier, a response to a letter from President Roosevelt.  And the caveat: I’m no longer with the NSF. But I was asked about this a lot when I visited panels and generally my response was as follows….

First, probably the most important BI from my point of view is to communicate the intellectual merit of the proposed science in plain language that the lay public (and especially Congressional stakeholders) can understand.  Even the title of a proposal can be thought of as part of this kind of BI. Far too often, proposers fall back on the pithy titles that are both humorous (to colleagues) and grab the attention of journal editors at places like Science or Nature. Bad idea. From the taxpayer standpoint, the case for the science needs to be sober and cogent.

But this notion of communication extends to the entire BI component of the proposal: a central broader impact is that the general public understands why the proposed science is worthy of investment. So public science communication as part of the BI is an extremely worthwhile activity–as long as it scales. What I mean by this is that if you are communicating the intellectual merit of your science in lay language, make sure to use a medium that reaches a lot of people.

Another excellent BI is to broaden participation (BP) in scientific research. Under-represented minorities and women are often discouraged from careers in science during K-12, but also later during undergraduate training. BP activities that are integral to proposals are definitely responsive to the BI criterion. But here again, they have to scale. Often proposers make the mistake of prioritizing novelty of approach at the expense of scale. If your institution is already actively and successfully engaged in a BP activity, consider, aligning your proposed BI to what is already on-going at your campus. Not only is that efficient use of scarce funds, but it also has the advantage of scaling beyond your own lab or field site.

Finally, understand that the basic big idea behind BI is that scientific research can have dual use: it can increase our knowledge about the universe around us and it can benefit society. BI is about explicitly making that connection clear.