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:
- COSEE NOW’s Broader Impact Wizard will help PIs determine important points to include in a BI statement.
- NABI’s “Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions” brochure (hard copies available in the OARS office) is often distributed to NSF review panels.
- Miami’s Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning will work with PIs to develop plans for evaluating BI activities (see “Addressing Broader Impacts in the proposal” section below).
She also offered the following specific examples of BI activities as models:
- The Sustainability in Prisons Project was started by Nalini Nadkarni as a BI activity associated with her work at Evergreen State University and has grown over many years into a large and independent effort.
- Ecology Meets Technology coding camp for Girl Scouts is a BI activity designed by Brent Ewers at the University of Wyoming.
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.