How can I write an excellent Broader Impacts section?

This post is for the busy researcher who wants to do well with the Broader Impacts section of their preproposal and proposal, but needs some more concrete ideas for what would shine.

In the new version of the NSF Grant Proposal Guide (GPG) found here, NSF is telling you even less about what to do for Broader Impacts. This was according to a review by the National Science Board who said we were interpreting the examples as a list of things we had to do. So, what are we supposed to do now? The GPG says that Broader Impacts “encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.” It also says that both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts should meet four other criteria, which I’ll summarize as 1. creative, 2. feasible, 3. something you are qualified to do, with 4. sufficient resources.

There was a time when Broader Impacts sections had little more than the promise to mentor students, perhaps accompanied by a list giving their gender, reported race, and reported ethnicity. That might have been sufficient shortly after the Broader Impacts section began, in 1997, but it will not do now. Your broader impacts should reach farther, be more exciting, and capture some of what you have discovered about doing scientific research for a broader audience. Try to do something new that you think might be fun.

A good way to divide up your thinking about Broader Impacts is to decide on three things: who your audience is, what information you want to share with them, and where you will reach them. The audience can be fellow researchers at all levels, the pubic at large, or school children. You can share technical information, data, and advice with researchers and educational material or cool scientific stuff with the public and school children. You can reach small audiences in person on campus or at specific events and much larger audiences through the web, whether it be your site, YouTube or, best of all, Wikipedia. You should request specific funding for your Broader Impacts activity. You should be prepared to document what you have done previously in the Prior Research Section.

OK, so far I’ve told you some fairly broad things, which may or may not be helpful. Here I will tell you some specific things to do. First, commit to embracing Wikipedia. This is where people get increasing amounts of their information on everything. It is easy to use. I had my whole class contribute this past year. Pick ten or twenty topics or organisms, and methodically improve the Wikipedia entries. Check the box that you will watch them, so the improvements stick. Learn how to use the History tab and the Talk tab. Learn how to add references using the pull down Cite menu. There are tons of Wikipedians out there anxious to help. You could have each person in your lab group be responsible for a few topics in your area of expertise. Get your articles to Good Article, or even Featured Article status. Wikipedia is by far the best way to contribute to the public on the web.

Second, do something different on campus. Right there on campus are tons of students that don’t really know what they want to do. How can you reach out in a new way? I am a big fan of freshman seminars which share the excitement of science at a time the students are being bombarded all too often with our most old-fashioned memory-heavy teaching. So you could teach a freshman seminar, or pair up with someone else teaching one and give students a taste of life in the laboratory. Is there a scientific club that might like your input? Is there an outdoor recreation group that might like a scientist to tag along on a field trip and teach some biology? Find some way to do something right on campus that is different by contacting someone already doing something or teaching something that might benefit from your involvement, or the involvement of your group.

High school students eat breakfast before Saturday activities.

High school students eat breakfast before Saturday activities.

Third, find a way to reach the public or school children directly. I have a Saturday Science Day on which my undergraduates teach high school students from local public schools. The Institute for School Partnership team at Wash U finds the teachers and students and sets it up. My students plan the short lectures and activities. There are other groups at my institution ready to help with outreach, like the Gephardt Institute. I bet your university has similar groups that facilitate the contact side of outreach, leaving you the exciting content side.

Sexual selection activity.

Sexual selection activity.

High school students listen carefully.

High school students listen carefully.

Fourth, find a way to share your technical expertise with a broader community of scientists. Put your protocols on your website. Share scripts for analysis whenever possible. Participate in the R community fully. I don’t really know all the ways bioinformatics gets shared, in particular how scripts for genomic analyses of various sorts might be shared, but if this is what you do, try to make your analyses transparent and easily shared.

Fifth, keep your lab group diverse and engaged. Teach your lab members to contribute broadly. Mentor your team, taking care to understand that they may not want to turn into someone like you, but might have very different goals.

Finally, have fun. I feel like the Broader Impacts criterion is a good one that has gotten us to step back from our own studies and figure out what we are doing when we do science. Effective Broader Impacts can itself broadly impact our research.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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1 Response to How can I write an excellent Broader Impacts section?

  1. Pingback: Writing the Broad Impacts Section in the NSF Application | All About Grants

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