There is one component of your broader impacts that you should always include. It is crucially important not just for you but for the continuing funding of science. It is essential for the ultimate application of your research to the betterment of our world. Betterment of the world can come from technical advances, but it can also come from the glory of understanding for the first time what is out there on our planet and how these things, organisms, molecules, or anything natural are interconnected.
You may not even realize that this topic I am building to is a broader impact, let alone the most important one of all. I would argue if you do not excel at this one broader impact, you will struggle with all the others. This essential broader impact is the clear communication of your science.
Communication implies at least two partners, the signal sender and the signal receiver. The first receiver of scientific information you might think of is other scientists. But even this first category varies from people very close to what you do to the broader scientific community that you must reach if you hope to publish in PNAS, Science, Nature, or PLoS Biology. Outside of science is usually divided into two communities, the public and young students. These groups are even more diverse than the scientists. The more we as a community fail to reach them, the lower trust of science will fall, with concomitant reductions in funding, and all the positive consequences of an educated public on the issues of our time.
Publishing and giving talks at meetings are the standard first ways of communicating your science. In fact, if you do not publish your results in a peer reviewed format, it is not really viewed as complete. But this is only the beginning. Find a way of communicating your science to other audiences. This may be through blogs, through talking to reporters, through your lab web page, by making videos, or many other ways. You don’t have to target all audiences with all your work. You can pick and choose, perhaps leaving the most narrow and technical work for your colleagues. But I would say every paper you publish should have a few sentences intelligible by the educated adult public. These sentences should be easy to find on your web page.
Don’t be surprised when someone on your daughter’s soccer team asks you what you have discovered. Don’t stammer in the elevator when you try to explain your work. Be prepared to understand and explain exactly why what you do is important. Put it in context too. Think about always mentioning someone else who also works in your area and how your work fits with advancing the field.
Being able to communicate your science effectively may not be something you learned in grad school. But there has been a lot done on this topic. The very interesting two Sackler conferences on the topic are a good place to start, here and here. By the way, this isn’t just me. It is a topic that comes from our recent discussion on NSF’s Biology Advisory Committee, chaired by Kay Gross and reporting to Jim Olds.