A staff member talks about an exhibit with Hefner Museum visitors. The walls of the museum are filled with the stuffed heads of various grazing animals.

NABI steering committee member delivers workshop on Broader Impacts

Professor Burcin Bayram stands at the front of a lecture hall. First graders fill the student seats. Various science instruments are arranged on a table behind Bayram. The projection screens behind her have pictures of light traveling through various media. They are labeled: "Light Travels in a Straight Line," "Light Reflects," and "Light Refracts."
Burcin Bayram, professor of physics demonstrates lasers for first graders from the Talawanda School District as part of Miami University’s Science Week.

In May, Liz Nysson, a member of the steering committee for the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), delivered a workshop on the NSF Broader Impacts (BI) criterion for Miami University faculty. During the workshop, she shared information about BI and tips for designing BI activities and addressing BI in proposals.

Defining Broader Impacts

Nysson explained that Broader Impacts is the merit review criteria that NSF uses when reviewing grant proposals that specifically addresses the societal impacts associated with the proposed activities. Largely, Broader Impacts are intended to improve society and increase the country’s STEM workforce. According to the most recent legislation guiding NSF’s review of Broader Impacts (the 2017 American Innovation and Competitiveness Act), appropriate BI activities are those that help demonstrate meet one or more of the following goals:

  • Increase the economic competitiveness of the U.S.*
  • Improve the health and welfare of individuals in society*
  • Improve national security*
  • Enhance partnerships between academia and industry*
  • Improve PreK-12 STEM education and teacher development and undergraduate STEM education and instruction to develop a globally competitive American workforce
  • Increase scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology in the U.S.
  • Expand the participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM

The goals marked with an asterisk (*) in the above list are ones Nysson said may be inherent to the research outcomes of some proposed projects. science of some disciplines. In those cases, the potential societal impacts of the research intrinsic to the results, products, and other activities should be clearly outlined discussed as such in the proposal.

It is not necessary for an individual PI’s BI activities to address all of the established goals. In fact, Nysson said that proposing to do too much in terms of BI could undermine a proposal by raising a question in reviewers’ minds about the PI’s ability to follow through on the proposed work.

Making Broader Impacts work for the PI

Treating BI as more than an afterthought is key to addressing this review criterion effectively in proposals. Nysson’s said in her experience PIs’ perceptions of BI fall at various points on a continuum that is anchored at one end by “burden” and at the other by “opportunity,” with the notion of BI as a “box-checking” exercise occupying the center. She urged workshop participants who might fall closer to the “burden” end of the continuum to reorient themselves so that they might find opportunities to enhance their research programs through effective BI.

Such opportunities can be achieved, Nysson suggested, by choosing BI activities that are important not just to society, but also to the PI. Research by Julie Risien at Oregon State University suggests the optimal situation is for PIs to work to identify the overlap between themselves, their capacity, their field, and society, between what they would love to do, what they can do, and what they should do.

Nysson recommended the following resources for researchers working to develop an effective BI plan:

She also offered the following specific examples of BI activities as models:

Additional tips from Nysson include:

  • Starting BI planning early
  • Integrating BI activities with research activities
  • Selecting BI activities that are directly related to the proposed project, either supported by it or complementary to it
  • Considering partnerships with schools, clubs (e.g., scouts, 4-H, Girls Who Code), or other organizations (e.g., museums, LSAMP programs)

Nysson cautioned that starting early is especially important for researchers who want to partner with schools, clubs, or other organizations. Coordinating with those groups to ensure that activities benefit their constituents and are effectively implemented can take longer than many PIs realize.

Addressing Broader Impacts in the proposal

Although many PIs think of the Project Description as the only section of a proposal concerned with BI, Nysson said a BI message should be clear and present throughout the proposal in various ways. Doing so reinforces the message that the BI activities are integrated with the research and integral to the project. Section by section, her advice was as follows:

  • Project Summary: Include a distinct section for BI
  • Project Description: Include a distinct section for BI
  • Biographical Sketches: Be sure to mention any diversity and inclusion training personnel participated in and include any collaborations that demonstrate BI
  • Budget and Budget Justification: Ideally, the budget should include costs for BI activities, but if it doesn’t, the reason should be explained in the budget justification
  • Special Information and Supplementary Documentation
    • Postdoctoral Researcher Mentoring Plan: Take special care to address BI, as this section is reviewed under the BI criterion
    • Data Management Plan: Include BI as appropriate
    • Letters of Collaboration: Include letters from any BI collaborators (be sure the letters follow the strict format provided in NSF’s Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide)
    • Other sub-sections: Include BI as appropriate

Nysson reminded PIs that they will want to include BI activities in their Annual, Final, and Project Outcomes Reports.

Finally, Nysson recommended that PI make sure they reserve enough room in their narrative to explain and justify their activities. Specifically, she said the narrative should:

  • Explain how BI activities are innovative (new programs) or effective (existing programs)
  • Present a well-organized strategy for accomplishing clearly stated BI goals
  • Establish the qualifications of those responsible for BI activities
  • Demonstrate sufficient resources to support BI activities
  • Communicate a plan to assess and document the results of BI activities

In the case of activities related to broadening participation, Nysson said it is important to collect (anonymous) demographic information on participants to demonstrate fulfillment of this BI goal.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Hefner Museum photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. Physics lab photo by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

One thought on “NABI steering committee member delivers workshop on Broader Impacts

  1. Reblogged this on RAM Research News and commented:
    In preparation for the upcoming NSF Unplugged Series, this week’s blog is a reblog from Miami University covering the NSF review criteria which is often a hang up for those new to submitting to the NSF: Broader Impacts. Blogger Heather Beattey Johnston shares tips on designing Broader Impact activities and addressing Broader Impacts in the NSF proposal.


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