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How to write more competitive research funding proposals and prepare for a greater research legacy
Takeaways from the 2017 National Alliance for Broader Impacts Conference


by Jennifer Roche

If you’re among the thousands who seek funding for your scientific research or your institution’s, you will encounter the requirement for a Broader Impacts (or research impact) plan.


The National Science Foundation (NSF) and other research funders have started requiring scientists who apply for financial support for their research to demonstrate not only intellectual merit but also how their projects will improve society.


Consider that trend against the backdrop of a shifting political landscape and fluctuating public opinion about science, and it’s pretty easy to understand why spelling out the Broader Impacts (BI) of your projects takes on a new urgency.


Unfortunately, for many administrators and PIs, planning for BI can be a last-minute, add-on item to an otherwise well-considered proposal. But, BI supporters and administrators at the 2017 National Alliance for Broader Impacts Summit suggest putting time and energy into developing a long-term vision for BI can not only enhance your funding chances, but can also help a funding application shine.


This article reviews how a solid BI plan helps get your research funded, shares reports about how administrators and PIs at the NABI conference approach BI, explains how to begin quickly shaping a plan you’re excited about, and how the NSF uses BI in determining how to award grants. (Hint: it’s in flux, too.)


Questions Answered in this Article








What are Broader Impacts (BI)?

Although the definition varies among funders, broader impacts are essentially the benefit to society from an investment in scientific research. With the NSF, Congress wants a fuller account of how government funds are spent. BI can be thought of as the taxpayers’ (or funder's) return on investment as well as a tool to help keep science visible, accountable, and relevant to the public.

BI can be achieved through the research itself, directly related activities, or activities supported by, but complementary to the project. The NSF, for example, looks for demonstration that a research project will accomplish one or more of the following objectives: promote teaching or learning, involve or increase participation of under-represented groups, enhance infrastructure for research and education, increase scientific understanding, or benefit society via commercial technology, public policy, or national security.


Why are Broader Impacts important?
Here are 4 big reasons:


1. You need to show BI to compete for NSF funding. The NSF awards research funds on behalf of the U.S. government based on two guiding criteria: intellectual merit (IM) of the proposed project and the plan for ensuring the project’s broader impacts (BI). Generally, 10% of the funds received should be set aside for BI, but the importance of this portion of the proposal has grown steadily over the past 20 years.


2. You need to show BI to compete for other funding, too. NSF is not alone in asking for your broader impacts plans. Jory Weintraub of Duke University pointed out that other public funders like NIH-R25 and 41/42, USDA-AFRI, and USAID require proposals to plan for broader impacts as do private foundations such as the Gelfand Family Charitable Trust, Weinberg Foundation, and the Kauffman Foundation’s KC Alliance.


3. Accountability is good. Weintraub made this point as well. Being held accountable for thoughtful use of research funds benefits stakeholders and taxpayers and reflects a level of professionalism by the researcher.


4. You’ll expand the impact of your work. In addition to helping you fuel greater engagement with your work, it can also help you plan for your long game. Julie Risien of Oregon State University advised that PIs think about broader impacts opportunities as small steps toward building a legacy for their work.


Does NSF really care about broader impacts? Is this a trend that will fade?


These questions were voiced by a few attendees at the conference, reflecting commonly heard confusion or skepticism from PIs and administrators back home.


Susan Renoe of University of Missouri (and the PI on NABI) argued that BI goals have been a requirement of the NSF for more than 20 years and will likely only grow in importance, especially given fluctuating political landscape and public opinion.


Several NSF proposal reviewers at the conference suggested that a good BI plan can certainly tip the balance in a project’s favor, but only when the science is absolutely sound. The best BI plans, they said, were those that were well-integrated with solid scientific goals and were realistic to achieve within their given budget.


Suzy Iacono, the Director of Office of Integrative Activities at NSF, shared very preliminary data from one of the first NSF efforts to examine empirically how BI were being used in the NSF evaluation process. Here are a few of the thoughts she shared:


  • Early data suggest variation among directorates in how they approached BI evaluation.

  • In general, the majority of NSF BI proposal sections focused on broadening participation among underrepresented groups and on training students.

  • Relatively few BI plans proposed improving public literacy or contributing to national security as an impact plan.

  • Early analysis suggests that reviewers may be weighting dissemination plans for the research rather heavily in their assessments, suggesting some disparity between the proposal writers and the reviewers in how they interpret BI.

  • A full assessment of data is forthcoming from NSF.

How to begin planning for broader impacts in 1 hour or less


First, spend about 15 minutes reading two resources:


  1. NABI’s “Broader Impacts Guiding Principles” (PDF)  guide;

  2. NSF’s Broader Impacts site.


The NABI document distills the BI requirements into key areas of focus and identifies clarifying questions for planning. The hope with this NABI document is that NSF reviewers will adopt it as a directional tool for reviewing the BI sections of proposals.


The NSF site lays out five very broad areas for impact (building STEM talent, innovating for the future, reaching beyond borders, improving our society and engaging a wider audience).


Second, jump over to the Broader Impacts Wizard, an online tool developed by Janice McConnell and her team at Rutgers University.


By completing this online tool, you’ll hone the next steps for clarifying your vision, your budget, and your area(s) of focus. You can even save or print out your draft. (McConnell noted that this Wizard does not capture or save what you enter into the tool.)


Third, consider these tips, which were identified during 2017 National Alliance for Broader Impacts conference discussions:


  • Clarify the target audience, number or size of audience you aim to reach, and outline the specific subject matter or topics you will convey.

  • Can you tie your BI efforts to something you personally love to pursue (e.g., talking at public science pub nights or podcasting) or that you personally would love to see as a legacy of your research, such as a long-term partnership with a community group, organization, or artist?

  • Explain how the work you intend to do in the IM section melds with the BI section and cite back-up for your choices, if available.

  • Square what you want to achieve for your BI plan with your likely BI budget (usually at least 10% of the funding request). Err on the side of being realistic. Planning too much on a small budget was mentioned by at least two NSF reviewers as a common error they had seen.

  • Don’t forget to include how you will evaluate your plan. Many attendees said they either hired an assessor or did in-house assessment using students from elsewhere in their school or a standard assessment tool.

  • Work toward clarity, specificity, and achievability in your BI plan and have fun with it. Make it an extension of who you are and what you already find important. As Oludurotimi Adetunji of Brown University advised, “If you don’t like working with children, then don’t make a Broader Impacts plan around working with children.”

  • Susan Renoe cited one busy scientist who planned her impacts around her kid’s classroom so she could spend more time there, creating a science-family win-win. She also emphasized making the BI plan work for you. She asked: What can make researchers more competitive and enjoy what we’re doing more? How do we make our jobs more relevant to our universities and our researchers?

  • Begin thinking about BI impacts and projects as early in the process as possible. As with all things, procrastination doesn’t help much.

  • Don’t over think this. Be thoughtful in your approach. Make them work for you.  Make a logical case for the approach. You’re done.


Examples of Broader Impacts Projects

Saving Atlantis, Video Documentary, Oregon State University Productions


Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at University of Washington, Online Training Modules


First Life: Imagining the Chemical Origins of Life, composition by Steve Everett (“Each section of this work is constructed from contingent outcomes drawn from Dr. Grover’s biochemical research exploring the early Earth formations of organic compounds.”)


StartUP at Florida International University


NSF Site - Broader Impacts

More BI Resources

NSF Broader Impacts Site

National Alliance for Broader Impacts

Communicate Your Broader Impacts Successfully (Principal Investigators Association)


NSF Science Communication ToolKit for PIs