Broader Impacts Resource CenterPenn State Eberly College of Science Outreach Office
Latest NSF Guidelines on Broader Impacts
Definition of Broader Impacts
Broader Impacts is one of two merit review criteria, along with Intellectual Merit, that the National Science Foundation (NSF) expects proposers to fully address in their proposals. The definitions of the two criteria, as noted in the NSF Grant Proposal Guide (Ch. III Section A), are listed below:
- Intellectual Merit: The potential to advance knowledge, and
- Broader Impacts: The potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes
Requirements for Broader Impacts
The NSF revised the BI requirements in 2013 so that proposals no longer have to span five specific criteria. In its Grant Proposal Guide (Ch. II Section C), the agency now only offers broad guidelines on how researchers can meet the BI requirement and potential social outcomes they can strive to achieve. (Click here to learn more about how the NSF reviews BI in practice.)
- Through the research itself (i.e., research that has potential to lead to breakthroughs in certain industries or contribute to solutions to societal problems)
- Through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects (e.g., using the research project as a training ground for students or early-career scientists)
- Through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project (e.g., running an educational workshop for high school students on your research topic)
- Full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in STEM
- Improved STEM education and educator development at any level
- Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology
- Improved well-being of individuals in society
- Development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce
- Increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others
- Improved national security
- Increased economic competitiveness of the United States
- Enhanced infrastructure for research and education
*Note that successful proposals often combine several different Broader Impacts approaches and target several different outcomes. For example, a researcher might describe the potential impact of the research itself on a particular industry but also involve undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds in the research through an REU program and run educational workshops on their research topic for high-school women. Check out our Successful Examples page to see the blend of BI activities that successfully funded Penn State faculty have proposed.
NSF Review of Broader Impacts: Process and Trends
In an effort to aid faculty in crafting effective Braoder Impacts (BI) sections, our office communicates regularly with ECoS faculty who have served as NSF review panelists. Based on these conversations we maintain brief, up-to-date overviews of the NSF Broader Impacts review process and pontetial “red flags” to avoid in BI sections.
NSF Broader Impacts Review Process
- Program directors and panel members differ in their assessment and valuation of Broader Impacts activities.
- Since there is no way to anticipate how stringently each reviewer will consider the Broader Impacts criterion, having strong BI sections is critical for minimizing risk. A strong BI section cannot hurt a proposal.
- One of the primary discrepancies is around whether it’s more important for an activity to be innovative or to be a recognized program with a long, positive track record.
- NSF panelists are given the opportunity to rank proposals they’d like to review based on their expertise, but they are not guaranteed their choices.
- Panelists are trained on review procedures by NSF staff members.
- This training now places a greater emphasis on the Broader Impacts section than it did in the past.
- Reviewers may be provided with the guiding questions shown below as part of their training.
- What is the potential for proposed activity to benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?
- To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
- Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
- How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
- Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?
- Though NSF panelists have approximately one month to review proposals, once the panel convenes for review panel members may spend only 30 minutes reviewing your entire proposal, of which less than 10 may be devoted to Broader Impacts.
- Exact time depends on the volume of proposals and total time available for discussion, but this underscores the need to have BI sections that are clear and concise.
- A stellar BI section will not rescue a proposal with weak Intellectual Merit, but a weak BI section is enough to hamper an otherwise excellent proposal.
- Your NSF Program Director makes the final funding recommendations.
- The NSF Panelists give their recommendations to the Program Director, who makes final funding recommendations based on a variety of criteria. The Program Directors ultimately have to justify their decisions to NSF leadership, so they are unlikely to fund proposals with weak BI components. This is also why it is advisable to call your Program Director if you have questions about what they expect for BI! Different NSF programs can have different preferences and expectations.
Potential Red Flags for Broader Impacts Sections
Principal Investigator (PI) proposed BI activities that benefit their field of research or other fields, but that provide limited or no societal benefits.
- For example, if a chemical engineering proposal mentions only the impacts of the research on the fields of chemical engineering and food science, the BI will not be reviewed favorably. This is considered to be Intellectual Merit, not a Broader Impact.
Proposed activities plug into existing outreach programs without describing what new value they will bring.
- If a proposal discusses involvement in, as an example, an after-school program, but does not highlight how the proposed activity will enhance this program through either new content or added value, the BI will likely not be reviewed favorably.
- Note: This is somewhat dependent on the reviewers’ individual preferences. Some reviewers are happy to see involvement in an established, successful program, regardless of whether or not the new project adds value.
Proposed BI activities are not sufficiently integrated with or related to the PI’s proposed or ongoing research.
- If a proposal discusses involvement in an ongoing program, or suggests a the initiation of a new program, but does not highlight how the program ties into ongoing or proposed research, it may be negatively reviewed.
- Note: Again, this is somewhat dependent on the reviewers’ individual preferences, with some reviewers happy to see involvement in effective programs regardless of their relationship to the PI’s research.
PI did not describe BI activities in sufficient detail.
- For example, if a PI mentions that their BI plan involves training students, but does not detail the recruitment of the students or what will comprise the training, reviewers may question if the plan has been fully developed.
PI wrote too much about BI activities they've done in the past and not enough about what they propose to do in the future.
- Note: Having a strong BI track record can be important, especially if you have received funding from NSF in the past. However, this shouldn’t be discussed at the expense of your proposed activities.
PI proposed BI activities that are not feasible.
- Note: If not discussed explicitly or in sufficient detail, panelists may question whether or not PIs have sufficient institutional support in the form of time or resources, whether or not they’ve formed the necessary partnerships with local organizations, and whether or not they are allocating funds appropriately.
PI proposed multiple, disjointed BI activities without having one well-developed, “main” activity.
- Note: If the PI does not convey that they have developed a robust, central BI mission or activity, reviewers may assume that they are compensating by proposing numerous weaker activities.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions or suggestions for how we can improve this resource center! Additionally, we would love to hear if you have Broader Impacts grant or activity examples you would like to share!