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
The review process for NSF proposals is relatively complex, but several key elements that are especially important to know for Broader Impacts are that:
- The NSF panelists are assigned randomly to applications. 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 of a poor rating.
- Panelists may be given this booklet to remind them of what to look for when evaluating a proposal’s Broader Impacts. Familiarize yourself with the guiding questions (also noted below) and make sure to respond to them in your proposal’s BI sections.
- 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?
- NSF panelists may spend less than 10min discussing your entire proposal. 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 unique.
- Your NSF Program Director makes the final funding decisions. The NSF Panelists give their recommendations to the Program Director, who makes final decisions 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.
NSF Broader Impacts Review Trends
Based on March 2016 conversations our office had with ECOS faculty who have served as NSF reviewers, the following are some of the key reasons reviewers evaluated a proposal negatively for Broader Impacts:
Plugging into existing outreach programs without describing what new value they will bring
Proposing BI activities that are not sufficiently integrated with or related to their research
Not describing how BI activities will be assessed
Writing too much about BI activities they've done in the past and not enough about what they propose to do in the future
Not budgeting sufficient funds for the BI activities they propose
Not connecting their proposed BI activities logically to their track record of BI 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!