NSF Driving Home Importance of ‘Broader Impacts’

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has issued another reminder that it thinks science communication and outreach are important. (Something I’ve written about before.)

NSF logoOn Jan. 2, NSF’s Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems issued a notice reminding all potential grant applicants that they will need to include a separate section in the project description section of their proposals that specifically addresses the “broader impacts” of the proposed work. (I first read about the Jan. 2 notice in a Jan. 7 post on Science Careers.)

In its proposal preparation instructions, NSF explains that: “Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to the achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (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; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.” I added the italics to emphasize the points that are explicitly related to science communication, but science communication plays an important role in almost all of the elements listed here.

For example, science communication aimed at reaching women and underrepresented minorities is essential if we hope to increase participation of these groups in fields of scientific endeavor.

In 2007, Peter March, then director of NSF’s Division of Mathematical Sciences, wrote a memo about the broader impacts requirements, including five ways that a grant proposal could demonstrate broader impacts. One of those examples was to “Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding, for example, by presenting results of research and education projects in formats useful to students, scientists and engineers, members of Congress, teachers, and the general public.” Hear, hear.

It’s nice to see NSF reiterate its commitment to science communication and outreach, and it’s a good reminder that – with grant dollars increasingly difficult to come by – the science community needs to take science communication efforts seriously.


4 thoughts on “NSF Driving Home Importance of ‘Broader Impacts’

  1. Liz Neeley

    Thanks Matt for writing this up! Along these same lines, I recently found Kamenetzky’s 2012 paper, “Opportunities for impact: Statistical analysis of the National Science Foundation’s broader impacts criterion” It is paywalled but link is http://spp.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/doi/10.1093/scipol/scs059

    Thought that her analysis is useful, as well as the brief review of who should be evaluating that criterion. Another thing to consider is, as she quotes, “…unless scientists embrace their own ability to judge [broader] impacts, their role in the decision-making process will increasingly be transferred to others.”


  2. Matt, thanks for this reminder. It is surprising (to me, at least) how some of my colleagues seeking funding from NSF do not really “get” that NSF is serious about proposers fully addressing the broader impacts criterion. When competition for funding is so intense, it makes sense to ensure that your proposal not only has a creative plan to meet this criterion but also documents how the PIs have been successful at this in the past (just as they list publications to document their technical expertise). Unfortunately, quite a few colleagues really don’t have anything to show, other than graduate student/post-doc training or perhaps a project website. It does not seem to occur to them that, along with technical achievements, they needed to be building a list of broader impacts activities long before they sit down to write the proposal.

    As for the larger topic of science communication, I stress to students the importance of being excellent communicators, especially as a way to set themselves apart from the crowd. Female science students in particular can gain a competitive edge by developing their communication skills beyond that of the average scientist.


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