How to Nail Broader Impacts in Your Next NSF Grant Application

June 1, 2018

If you’ve applied for National Science Foundation (NSF) funding, you’re familiar with the required Broader Impacts section. Broader impacts, according to NSF, are the “potential [for your research] to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of desired society outcomes.” While a great Broader Impacts statement won’t float a proposal with poor science, a poor Broader Impacts statement can sink a proposal with good science.

Identifying a plan for broader impacts of your research can be intimidating, especially if you’ve just come through a postdoctoral position where expectations were focused primarily on your research, with little emphasis or opportunity for outreach and public engagement. But if you plan to work in a primarily NSF-funded field, outreach will need to be part of your larger program. So start to develop a longer term-plan for this engagement, just as you are doing for your research program.

NSF’s definition of broader impacts may feel a bit vague, but the upside is that you can get creative—there are a lot of different audiences that might benefit from your research. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box! For example:

  • Think about things you are already doing and ways you can broaden participation. If you’re at an academic institution, you’re probably already training students and postdocs. Look for opportunities to engage with underrepresented groups. Many universities have programs to recruit and support minority students or undergraduate researchers, and they can help you identify candidates. Take advantage of NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program to help support undergraduate students.
  • Tap into existing community outreach programs. There are a lot of great programs already going on that engage the public. They are often looking for fresh ideas or expert support, so partner with them to see how you can translate your science. For example, if you want to deliver youth STEM programming, contact your state 4-H Organization or the Boy or Girl Scouts. If you work in an area relevant to environmental science, look to local parks or conservation organizations. Many universities also have dedicated offices or staff members that help coordinate and identify outreach opportunities.

    Partnering with an existing organization has some major benefits. First, they have already identified an interested audience. Second, the mechanism for delivery is already in place so you can focus on the message without worrying as much about logistics. Third, the people running these programs generally have a lot of experience in community and informal education and can help you better craft your message for your audience. Finally, existing programs are likely already doing some sort of formal program evaluation, which gives you valuable feedback for improvement and allows you to quantify your impact.
  • Don’t forget about industry and regulatory agencies. In addition to the general public, there are often specific industries that may ultimately benefit from your research. Reach out to see if there are ways you can collaborate or provide continuing education for professionals or regulators.
  • Look to land grant institutions and their extension services. If you are at a land grant institution, you already have an informal education mechanism in place via your extension service. Use it! If you’re not at a land grant institution, consider partnering with extension faculty at a land grant. Extension faculty and staff specialize in science-based education for a variety of stakeholders. They deal with the public on an almost-daily basis, translating the latest science and technology to inform practice. They can help you translate your science for practical application and education.
  • Look for ways to maximize societal benefit. Visiting an elementary school class for an afternoon to talk about your science is a great thing to do, but at the end of the day you’ve only reached about 20 students. Think about what you can do to reach more people, particularly those with less access. Maybe this means focusing on training educators, who can then deliver your message to multiple classrooms, or partnering with your university’s journalism department to bring on a project scribe who will translate your science for press releases and other public publications. Don’t forget about your graduate students—think about ways you can engage them in your outreach. Not only does this help you out, it has the added bonus of training the next generation of scientists in informal education and public outreach.

Once you have ideas on how you’d like to engage in outreach, you can craft your Broader Impacts statement. Here are some tips for writing a compelling statement:

  • Articulate your larger goals. Just as with your research, it is important that your outreach be a comprehensive program that extends beyond this one proposal. Don’t write the Broader Impacts statement as a one-off activity—state how this work extends beyond the life of the grant.
  • Link your science to the outreach. If you work on more fundamental research, sometimes it can be difficult to make a connection to an applied outcome, but that’s all the more reason you need to spell it out for reviewers.
  • Provide specific details. For example, don’t just say “students will be trained in bioinformatics.” Give as many details as you can: how many students, what type of students, how will they be recruited, trained and evaluated, etc.
  • Plan to evaluate. At the end of the project, you will need to report your impact. Having an evaluation plan in place will show reviewers that you care about whether your program is working. If you work with existing programs, they likely have an evaluation mechanism in place. For larger programs, consider partnering with professional evaluators who are familiar with using evaluation instruments to help you capture the impact of your outreach.
  • Budget appropriately. Depending on the scope of what you want to do, it will take time, travel and supplies. Engaging a professional evaluator may involve paying a fee. In the past, I’ve budgeted for student assistants to help me with outreach programs, or travel funds for teachers to come to workshops on campus. Having line items in the budget appropriate to your scope of work shows reviewers that you have a clear plan and are serious about getting it done.

Bringing our science to the public should be part of our mission as scientists. When you sit down to write your next NSF grant application, think about what you want your comprehensive outreach program to look like, and then articulate specific plans toward that goal. And remember that outreach is not one-way communication—engaging with the public will not only benefit society, but will also challenge you, helping you grow as a scientist and communicator.

For more information and resources, check out ARIS (Advancing Research Impact in Society).

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Jennifer DeBruyn

Jennifer DeBruyn is an associate professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering & Soil Science at the University of Tennessee. She’s an environmental microbiologist who focuses on decomposition and biodegradation. She partners with Tennessee 4-H to develop and deliver environmental science curriculum for youth.

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