Friday, March 28, 2014

Digging into NSF's Broader Impacts Criteria

The two criteria that serve as the hallmarks for every NSF grant proposal are Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Most researchers agree that Intellectual Merit, defined by the NSF as "the potential to advance knowledge," is relatively straightforward.

The Broader Impacts are defined by the NSF as "the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes." The Broader Impacts, although obviously important, for many faculty seem a little vague when it comes to interpretation of what counts.

NSF outlines these additional considerations for both criteria:
  • 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?
The NSF has stopped offering examples of Broader Impacts on their website because they were concerned about providing undue influence and that the examples might be seen as proscriptive. This point is important to note. It suggests that the NSF is looking for creative and innovative approaches to broader impacts, and not a canned response.

That said, in past elaborations, the NSF has given the following guidelines for considering Broader Impacts:
  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning? 
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? 
  •  To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?
  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?
In this document, they offer a substantive list of examples that would fit under each of these guidelines. These examples are worth reviewing, but only to get you brainstorming about what broader impacts your project has inherently and other ways you might enhance your project to further these broader impacts.

But remember, the NSF has intentionally chosen to no longer offer an array of details and examples around their Broader Impacts criteria. This is not to frustrate researchers, but to encourage them to genuinely create projects that have a high potential to make a difference and to not limit researchers in their creativity and innovation around their Broader Impacts.

NSF Merit Review Criteria
2002 Merit Review Broader Impacts Criterion: Representative Activities
NSF Strategic Plan
Summer 2013 Newsletter - Division of Earth Science (Broader Impacts example - pgs 3-4)
Spring 2014 Newsletter - Division of Earth Science (Broader Impacts example - pgs 3-4)


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