NSF 101: Five tips for your Broader Impacts statement

How does your research impact society? Scientists and engineers funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation are accountable to taxpayers for conducting research, and collectively moving their research beyond the lab to impact the public good, thereby benefitting the economy, society and discovery itself. This is what NSF defines as "Broader Impacts."

The Broader Impacts statement is a critical component of any research proposal submitted to NSF. Broader impacts strengthen the relationship between the science community and society. Take for example the work of Ayanna Howard, the Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech, whose work with artificial intelligence-powered robots inspires children of all ages and abilities to fall in love with STEM and represents this important engagement between research and society. Another example is the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Innovation in Information Technology study in which an infographic was created to visually tell the story of how computer science and engineering researchers partnered with industry to develop billion-dollar industries over many decades.

Here are five tips from NSF program officers to help you with your Broader Impacts statement.


1. Do your homework.

The NSF Proposal and Award Policies & Procedures Guide, and the 2011 National Science Board report on Merit Review Criteria outline how broader impacts come from your research:

"Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to the achievement of societally relevant outcomes."

The guide provides nine examples of potential outcomes that might align with your research. Note that this is not a checklist, and your Broader Impacts statement is not limited to these outcomes, nor do you need to focus on all of them:

  • Full participation of women, persons with disabilities and underrepresented minorities in STEM.
  • Improved STEM education and educator development at any level.
  • Increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.
  • Improved well-being of individuals in society.
  • Development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce.
  • Increased partnerships between academia, industry and others.
  • Improved national security.
  • Increased economic competitiveness of the U.S.
  • Enhanced infrastructure for research and education.

There is a common misconception among applicants that broader impact "activities" must be a separate add-on to the research activities, but this is not necessarily the case. NSF's Perspectives on Broader Impacts includes additional insights that might inspire your own ideas.

Finally, the Dear Colleague Letter from NSF's Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate provides useful tips for everyone on how to fit your work into a structured framework to better clarify your Broader Impacts statement.


2. Seek additional resources.

Look at online resources created by professional societies, universities and nonprofits. The NSF-funded ARIS website provides up-to-date information on broader impacts. Also, have an open discussion with your colleagues about how your research impacts society, and check with your own institution if they have resources to help you develop your Broader Impacts statement.

3. Align your statement with your interests, expertise and community needs.

Each discipline impacts society differently. Your research may inherently contribute to societally relevant outcomes, or you may propose activities that are related or complementary to your research such as educational activities, building a diverse research team, or public stargazing gatherings at a research telescope.

For examples of initiatives in your research area, you can look through recently funded awards using NSF’s awards search, and select the program to which you’re submitting. You can also reach out to your program officer with any questions.


4. Know the difference between "broader impacts" and "broadening participation."

While they are related, they are not the same thing. Broadening participation is an important element which falls under broader impacts and aims to include scientists from underrepresented groups and institutions, thereby fostering collaboration among diverse social groups and leading to innovation.

While broadening participation might be a key component of your Broader Impacts statement, is not necessarily a required component. Also, it is likely not the only societal impact of your project. For more information, visit NSF's Broadening Participation webpage which includes activities, reports and impacts.

5. Know your audience.

Grant reviewers will evaluate your Broader Impacts statement on these five criteria:

  • What is the potential for the proposed activity to benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?

    Identify the intended community and match your strategy. For example, if you propose an open-access tool that focuses on one part of society, then ensure your tool is appropriate for that audience. If you are planning for outreach at elementary schools, you will need to package your research into products children can understand.  
  • To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original or potentially transformative concepts?

    Instead of starting from scratch, perhaps your research can build on known approaches. You may be able to have a greater impact by plugging into existing structures on your campus. Describe how you will expand on known, effective strategies and cite examples of successful ones.

    For example, hands-on, project-based learning enhances student performance, increases motivation and engagement, and develops critical thinking. So, you might create a teaching module around your research concepts that uses these best practices.
  • Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized and based on sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?

    Develop your Broader Impacts plan in the same way you develop the rationale for your research activities, including an evaluation plan. For example, how will you gauge the success of engaging an elementary school audience?
  • How well qualified is the individual, team or institution to conduct the proposed activities?

    Play to your strengths. If you have a talent for creating games, perhaps you could create a game about a food web that exemplifies your research on the interaction of different animal species. Similarly, what collaborations could strengthen your team? Perhaps someone in your education department could be a great collaborator.
  • Are there adequate resources available to the principal investigator (either at the home institution or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities

    Make sure to describe what resources you have, and make sure you budget for costs related to your broader impacts activities.

The Broader Impacts statement is a critical component of any research proposal submitted to NSF, so make sure you consider this while you are developing your research plan, and not after. Understanding how to impact society through research is important for building trust with the communities we serve.

By Tammy Wilbert, Ph.D. and Vincent Tedjasaputra, Ph.D.