NSF Letter Frames Concept of ‘Broader Impact’

In determining which among the many requests for grant funding that the United States’ National Science Foundation receives every year – more than 42,000 last year, of which 28 percent were eventually funded — a straightforward two-part test is applied as the requests come in the door: what is the intellectual merit of the proposed research, and what are its potential benefits to wider society.

Arthur Lupia
Arthur Lupia

In a “dear colleague” letter released March 18, the head of the NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate (SBE) offers a framework for understanding that second criterion, the broader impact. The framework doesn’t change the existing requirements, Assistant Director Arthur “Skip” Lupia stresses, “rather, it offers guidance on how to consider and convey broader impacts in ways that are easier for others to understand.”

And while ‘broader impacts” might have an intuitive meaning – as Lupia notes, “the National Science Foundation, universities, and other organizations offer resources that help researchers understand what the concept means” — his guidance sets the definition in a very specific manner for grant applicants.

One key point Lupia makes is that while it’s tough, or even impossible, to know whether any particular fundamental research will have a guaranteed societal impact, it is possible to make an educated prediction. Therefore, in grant applications, “descriptions of broader impacts should focus on a reasonable and honest assessment of possible and likely outcomes rather than on the probability of specific outcomes.”

The letter notes that fundamental research results in scientific opportunities but also communication products which can also benefit both the academic community and wider society. With that established, the letter offers a three-question framework for establishing broader impact, which we’ll quote at length:

Who Can the Scientific Opportunities and Communicative Products Empower? For research to have a broader impact, it should empower people to accomplish a goal tomorrow that they were unable to accomplish in the past. So, we ask researchers to consider “Who can your research empower?” In some cases, the beneficiaries will include students, early career investigators, and other academics. In other cases, it is possible to go further and consider other people who, and organizations that, can use the proposed research to advance science or improve others’ quality of life. This consideration can include communities, public-service organizations and entrepreneurs who can use the research to innovate.

Whose Quality of Life Can the Empowerment Improve? Where Question 1 asks about who is empowered, this question asks about who benefits from that empowerment. To answer this question, researchers can consider specific communities, organizations, or populations whose quality of life can be improved by new research. Consistent with the term “broader,” we encourage researchers to think expansively about how their work can benefit others. Even when a project’s immediate societal benefits are not apparent, and the probabilities of particular outcomes are difficult to calculate, researchers can help others understand the potential public value of their work by articulating broadly beneficial outcomes that become possible as a result of their proposed course of action.

What Actions Make These Broader Impacts More Likely? Additionally, we ask researchers to consider concrete steps that they can take to make these effects more likely. Here, researchers have an opportunity to offer forthright, feasible, and (where possible) verifiable plans for converting their work’s intellectual merit into outcomes that are broadly beneficial.

The letter tacitly locates the importance of explicitly stating broader impact in the social and behavioral science research by highlighting the value of social and behavioral science itself – not always a given when NSF funding is decided by the U.S. Congress. “By thoughtfully describing a project’s potential broader impacts more effectively,” Lupia writes, “researchers can help more citizens and stakeholders see the relevance of the research to their lives.”

To see the full letter, click here.

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