Scientists are finding it harder and harder to get money from the federal government to support their research. Success rates have plummeted. Competition is fierce. And on top of all of this, there is increased oversight of the spending done by scientific funding agencies. The National Science Foundation in particular has come under scrutiny from Congress, with the House Science, Space and Technology Committee taking an uncomfortably close look at how the agency spends its allocated dollars. While the motivation for the committee’s specific interest in the agency’s granting process can be debated, the fact that it is happening at all points towards to a broader need for scientists to show how the funding they receive is being used properly and effectively.
Such is the impetus behind the Broader Impacts requirement for NSF grant proposals. Since 1990, applicants to the NSF have been instructed to include a description of how their proposal will have the “potential to benefit society.” While this criteria is supposed to be given equal consideration to the scientific intellectual merit of the proposal, the quality of Broader Impacts proposals are unfortunately highly variable, as is the process of reviewing these ideas.
Hoping to provide some level of guidance to the scientific community, the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) has, since 2013, organized an annual Broader Impacts summit that brings together outreach department directors and managers from institutions across the country (and beyond!). At this year’s summit, which took place April 20-22 in Philadelphia, PA, program officers from the NSF repeatedly emphasized that grant reviewers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the idea that Broader Impacts be taken into consideration when determining the merit of a proposal. This point was accentuated by Dr. Suzi Iacono, head of the NSF Office of Integrative Activities, who showed striking data indicating that grant panel reviewers spend more effort discussing Broader Impacts in their reports than applicants do in their proposals. However, she cautioned that the data shows high variability across the agency’s eight directorates in terms of the type and quality of Broader Impacts proposals, suggesting that there is still work to be done in order to establish a community standard.
During the conference, several attendees presented about ground-level efforts related to Broader Impacts, such as how to start a Broader Impacts office at an institution, and how to get involvement and buy-in from different stakeholders, including faculty, students and administrators. Other sessions focused on approaches for engaging with the local community via creation of two-way dialogues that incorporate perspectives from outside the scientific community. The ASBMB, which is a member partner of NABI and one of the summit sponsors, was represented in the form of a session co-chaired by Manager of Public Outreach Geoff Hunt on defining the role and scope of Public Engagement professionals. Other popular sessions included a breakout session on evaluation of Broader Impacts activities, and several discussions on broadening participation in STEM fields by including underserved communities.
Moving forward, the summit will continue to serve as a locus for building a community of investigators and outreach managers dedicated to strengthening and standardizing Broader Impacts. NABI is also looking to expand upon their efforts by developing resources that can improve the quality of Broader Impacts. The group recently published a freely-available guide to writing and reviewing Broader Impacts, and is in the process of developing live training workshops that can help scientists implement these recommendations. One potential place for such a training that has been discussed is at the ASBMB Interactive Mentoring Activities for Grantsmanship Enhancement (IMAGE) grant writing workshop.
Want to get/stay involved? Sign up for NABI yourself here!