Workshop targets NSF broader impacts

Concentric circles in water show the ripple effect.

Creativity is the key to a broader impacts statement that makes an NSF proposal stand out from the crowd, says Joyce Fernandes, professor of biology at Miami University and a former program officer with the NSF.

Fernandes, who led an October 14 workshop on NSF broader impacts statements hosted by OARS, also says it’s not enough to talk about teaching and mentoring undergraduate students because those are things most applicants do. “You have to think outside the box to leverage the proposed research to include ‘value-added’ activities,” she says.

Becoming familiar with the details of the NSF broader impacts review criterion is an obvious starting point for researchers seeking to strengthen their proposals. These details reveal the NSF’s focus on three areas: research, education, and the public. Therefore, says Fernandes, the broader impacts section of a proposal generally includes discussion of the following:

  • Impacts on the broad research field
  • Integration of educational activities with the proposed research
  • Public outreach

Demonstrating an impact in at least two these three areas of NSF emphasis is desireable, Fernandes says, because it demonstrates accountability in the use of taxpayer dollars.

To provide evidence of past success in broader impacts activities, Fernandes says researchers must figure out how to quantify their accomplishments. One suggestion she offered is for researchers to document their students’ publications and conference presentations to illustrate the impact their mentorship has had on students.

Other suggestions include discussing the interdisciplinarity or diversity of the research team (when relevant) and explaining how unique aspects of a particular academic environment will be leveraged.

Fernandes made this last point in response to a workshop participant’s question about how to address the participation of postdoctoral researchers at Miami, an institution where such positions are not common. “Show how that’s a positive,” Fernandes advised. “Miami may be a non-traditional choice for a postdoc, but we do offer experiences and interactions a young researcher wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Another strategy Fernandes suggests is to explain how an individual lab’s work is integrated with the work going on within the larger community – the department, the institution, and the region. Demonstrating how broader impacts activities are aligned with institutional and regional goals shows that the work is culturally ingrained, and also helps speak to the issue of sustainability.

Examples of broader impacts activities discussed at the workshop include K-12 outreach in the form of teacher training and participation in the development of curriculum modules, post-doctoral mentoring, data analysis in classes, partnerships with HBCUs, and institutional summer programs. She said games and trading cards that get students excited about learning science are among the most engaging broader impacts deliverables she’s seen included in NSF-funded projects.

Fernandes also pointed out some broader impacts often overlooked by researchers, including fostering interdisciplinarity, visualizing data, and contributing to workforce development.

While broader impacts are very important in NSF proposals, Fernandes cautions researchers not to focus on them at the expense of the research’s intellectual merit. “A proposal will not fare well if it has excellent intellectual merit, but a minimal discussion of broader impacts,” she says. “But the reverse is also true. A proposal with excellent broader impacts must have a solid and sound research plan to be competitive.”

Intellectual merit and broader impacts must also be well-integrated. “You can’t divorce broader impacts from your research goals,” Fernandes says. A workshop participant with experience as a proposal reviewer seconded this advice, saying that doing that is “a proposal killer.” In that same vein, Fernandes says it’s also important to be cognizant of how budget allocations support broader impacts.

Upcoming workshops led by Joyce Fernandes:

  • November 4
    “Funding opportunities for STEM education”
    RSVP here.
  • November 11
    “NSF resubmission: how to decipher the panel summary”
    RSVP here.
  • November 18
    “Communicating with the NSF program officer: how, why, do’s and don’ts”
    RSVP here.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Water drop image by Harold de Smet via Flickr. Ripple image by Roger McLassus (improved by DemonDeLuxe) via Wikimedia Commons.  Both used under Creative Commons license.

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