Writing a Strong Broader Impacts Statement

Image: a public presentation of research in the James B Hunt Jr LibraryNSF asks reviewers to consider five elements: the potential to advance science and society, the potential to be transformative, soundness of approach, qualifications of the primary investigator, and whether there are adequate resources to carry out the proposed work.  These five review elements are applied to both the intellectual merit of the proposal and the broader impacts statement. A successful broader impacts statement will be created as thoughtfully and as individually as any other aspect of a successful proposal.

Identifying what to do as part of the broader impacts of your research can be difficult. Your work might have a clear and easy to articulate way of contributing to the public good, or you might need to call out additional projects to benefit society that will also be supported by the grant. It can be helpful first to review NSF’s societally desired outcomes and identify the outcomes that your research already contributes to -- such as workforce training or the participation of underrepresented groups -- as well as which outcomes you have a personal interest or ability in. From there you can begin to identify potential collaborators who could help further develop and refine your ideas. Reaching out to collaborators and your project development officer early in the proposal writing process can help make your broader impacts statement stronger and easier to write.

Start Early

Ideally broader impacts are developed as an integrated part of the research and in tandem with the rest of the proposal. That doesn't always happen, but it is good to start thinking about them early. For one thing, identifying and connecting with potential collaborators early on means that you'll have an expert on the team who can help you design impactful programs and activities, tell you what the best form of assessment might be, and reduce the guesswork on the budget.

Make it Specific

Reviewers and granting agencies will definitely be asking the same hard questions of the broader impacts statement as they do of the rest of the proposal. The more detail provided the easier it is to answer those questions. Knowing the target audiences and anticipating the scale of any events, having clearly articulated and measurable goals that relate back to the desired societal outcomes, and having plans for implementation and assessment will help. There is an expectation that broader impacts activities will be supported with relevant citations of current research and best practices, as are the research portions of the proposal.

The Broader Impacts Impact Framework (BIIF; Skrip 2015) is a tool to help guide the crafting of  outreach event or activity by examining the incorporation of five qualities associated with impactful outreach. Rating  your proposed activities using the BIIF can make it easier to design a truly impactful broader impacts activity, as well as to communicate the strengths of your proposal to reviewers. The BIIF asks:

  • Who is the audience?
    • How was the audience chosen?
    • Does the audience include “gatekeepers” or “opinion leaders?”
  • Why was this particular activity chosen?
    • Does the activity perpetuate the myth of information deficit?
    • Does the proposal specify a particular objective to be met?
  • What does the activity involve?
    • Does the activity incorporate the following:
      • Audience self-empowerment?
      • Exchange of ideas/interactivity/personal contact?
      • Value of non-scientist opinions/contributions?
      • Serving a public need?
  • How will the activity accommodate human nature?
    • Does the activity incorporate the following:
      • Direct experience?
      • Audience’s sense of identity?
      • Specificity of action?
  • With whom is the activity to be designed or performed?
    • Does the proposal demonstrate prior experience in successful outreach?
    • Does the activity involve collaboration with social scientists, professional communicators, or other intra- or extra-institutional staff?

(Skrip 2015)

The NC State University Libraries and the Office of Public Science in the College of Sciences maintain a bibliography of useful articles for planning and supporting broader impacts statements that can be found here.

Follow Through

It’s important to plan realistically for broader impacts activities. You will need to report results from your broader impacts activities to your project officer and in annual reports. If you collaborate with someone who can study the design and outcomes of your broader impacts activities, consider opportunities to publish. Finally, you'll be building expertise and experience to strengthen your next proposal.

Broader Impacts Statement Pitfalls

There are some things that have been very clearly pointed out by reviewers and awarding agencies as major pitfalls that show up in broader impact statements, and you should test your statements against them. (National Science Foundation, 2016)

  • An education component that is generic and expected of a PI in your field anyway, such as mentoring graduate students.

  • An education activity that is unrealistic or seems to be overreaching. Statements like "will impact K-12 education in the state" need to be genuinely  supported  with specifics or reviewers might think that the project won't deliver.

  • An outreach deliverable that just reinvents the wheel. Another blog or web page with no clearly developed and unique deliverable or function can be dismissed as standard by reviewers.

  • An education and research plan that are two parallel lines and will never connect. If the broader impact statement feels tacked on reviewers will think it is not being taken seriously.

  • An education or outreach plan that lacks understanding of effective education practices. Just as a research plan that doesn't seem aware of current developments in the field would raise some flags, a broader impact statement that doesn't consider what would be an effective communication approach could run into trouble. This is where collaborators can help – there are people on campus who can give you expert advice.

  • Focusing only on education. On an academic campus it's easy to think of education first and stop there, but remember that the enhancement of infrastructure, collaboration across academia government and industry, and the inclusion of underrepresented groups are desired societal outcomes too.

  • Activities that have no feedback loop. Saying that you will host a workshop is good, but describing how that workshop will inform and refine your research is better.

  • On the whole, reviewers will be looking for every indication of serious implementation, use, and consideration, as well as integration between the broader impacts and the intellectual merit.

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National Science Foundation (2016) Fall 2016 National Science Foundation Grants Conference [Video File] Retrieved from: https://nsfgrantsconferences.com/webcasts/

Skrip, Megan M. “Crafting and Evaluating Broader Impact Activities: A Theory-Based Guide for Scientists.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13(5): 273–79. Web. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1890/140209