Broader Impacts

BROADER IMPACTS: WHAT ARE THEY AND HOW ARE THEY REVIEWED?

All NSF proposals are evaluated based on two criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Intellectual Merit is reviewed on the value of the science, the potential for the planned investigation to result in impactful outcomes that advance knowledge, and the ability to assess success. But how does Broader Impacts work?

Occasionally, NSF Program Directors will see reviews of Broader impacts that say “The PI plans to do X, Y and Z broader impacts activities. This is a strength of the proposal.”  

We know this isn’t helpful for the PIs, and they aren’t helpful to the Program Director, so we ask reviewers to think about why Broader Impact efforts are a strength, how they benefit society or expand the reach of the science, and/or how they build capacity – either for the individual, their lab, or the institution.

We also want to know whether what the PI has laid out as a plan to accomplish those goals is doable and sufficiently resourced. Thoughtful evaluation of broader impacts will help the PI in carrying out their work, help NSF, and lead to better broader impacts activities with more benefit to society. MCB encourages reviewers to provide reviews that they themselves would find useful as PIs – constructive evaluations highlighting aspects of the proposed activity that were done “just right” as well as aspects that could be improved.  Good reviews help PIs improve not just their proposals, but also the works that eventually gets funded. 

In writing the Broader Impacts statement, we encourage the PI to be thoughtful in what they want to accomplish and how they will accomplish it. Is the activity something that interests them and has measurable outcomes? Are funds requested to support the activity or to help with assessment. Examples of Broader Impact efforts can include teaching, training, and learning; broadening participation of underrepresented groups; building or enhancing partnerships (including across multiple sectors); broad dissemination of the science or technological understanding; enhancements to infrastructure both at your home institution and in developing countries; and/or local impacts like policy or land use.

What are some resources to help think about Broader Impacts (and evaluate them if you are a reviewer)?

NSF provides PIs and reviewers with information about both merit review criteria in the Proposal and Award Policy and Procedure Guide (link).  Additional information on Broader Impacts activities can be found in this document or at this blog post. You can also view the recording and slides of MCB’s Broader Impacts Virtual Office Hour.

The NSF funded Center for Advancing Research Impacts in Society provides helpful guidance on how to evaluate broader impacts in this brochure.

And, of course, the MCB blog has posted about Broader Impacts – including some examples – in the past. You can read all the posts tagged as “Broader Impacts” at https://mcbblog.nsfbio.com/tag/broader-impacts/.

MCB congratulates ARIS director, Dr. Susan Renoe, who was just named 2021 AAAS Fellow

Photo of Dr. Susan Renow

Dr. Susan Renoe, Executive Director of the Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS), was elected as a 2021 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science journals.

Dr. Renoe was one of the 564 scientists, engineers, and innovators across a range of scientific disciplines recently elected as fellows for their distinguished achievements in the scientific enterprise. Dr. Renoe is recognized for her “distinguished contributions and commitment to strengthening the societal impacts of science and engineering by building capacity, advancing scholarship, growing partnerships across multiple institutions, and promoting effective public engagement.”

In 2014, Dr. Renoe was awarded a Research Coordination Network (RCN) grant (MCB-1408736), which founded the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) with the mission of establishing a community of practice that promoted the development of long-term, scalable institutional capacity as well as participation in larger effects activities. Former MCB program director, Dr. Karen Cone, who managed the grant, states “Dr. Renoe, as the leader of NABI, was an amazingly effective catalyst in establishing the science and practice of broader impacts and bringing a new level of professionalism to the field. This award is a well-deserved honor.” The success of NABI eventually led to the creation of ARIS (OIA-1810732), which supports engagement in broader impacts efforts and providing resources to researchers and practitioners.

MCB applauds Dr. Renoe and her efforts in broadening participation and engaging communities across the U.S. and abroad and congratulates her and all named 2021 AAAS Fellows. In a previous virtual office hour, Dr. Renoe joined MCB program directors to discuss how to ensure broader impact and broadening participation plans have real impact. Visit these links to view the presentation and recording.

Proposal submissions, Step One: Call a Program Officer and … say What?

Many researchers report that they are intimidated by the thought of calling a program officer (PO) to discuss their project proposal because they don’t how to initiate the conversation or what questions to ask. Program officers in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (MCB) recommend that principal investigators start by conducting background research on their project idea and send a one-page summary (see pp 10-13) before scheduling a call with a PO. An early conversation can help a researcher identify the most appropriate program and PO for a proposal. Below are some considerations for each step.

Some items you may wish to research before a phone call:

  • The current research portfolio of the program
  • Abstracts of funded projects related to yours
  • Award size, duration, and limitations of the solicitation
  • Any program specific requirements of the solicitation

A one-page summary should include: (be prepared to discuss these topics in depth during a phone call)

  • Your questions and specific aims
  • The big picture of your research area and knowledge gaps you are addressing
  • Key preliminary data and rationale
  • Overall intellectual merits and broader impacts
  • Any visuals that may be helpful

Possible topics and questions to bring up in a phone call:
Program fit:

  • Does my project fit this program?
  • What other programs or solicitations may be appropriate for my project?

Broader impacts:

  • Do my broader impacts fit NSF expectations?
  • What is the difference between broader impacts and broadening participation?
  • Do broader impacts and intellectual merits need to be integrated? Are mine sufficiently integrated?
  • Should I structure broader impacts and intellectual merit plans in the same way?

Specifics of proposal preparation:

  • Are my preliminary data in line with what the program expects?
  • To what extent should I describe results from prior support?
  • What kinds of equipment costs can be requested?
  • How much salary can I ask for myself, postdoc, or graduate student?
  • Do I have to include undergraduates in participant support costs?
  • What is the best way to fund a collaboration?
  • Can I submit the same proposal to another funding agency?
  • How long does the review process take?
  • Can I be funded by the same NSF program for two different projects?
  • What kinds of direct costs are allowable in budget line G6 Other?

NSF’s review process:

  • When is a good time to submit a proposal, given that there is no deadline?
  • Will the reviewers be experts in my field?
  • When should I expect a decision?
  • What are my options if my proposal is declined?
  • Will my declined proposal be evaluated by the same reviewers in the next round?

Did you know?

MCB holds virtual office hours on topics specific to the MCB research community once each month. Visit this page to register for upcoming events and to access past presentations. For more information on working with Program Officers, read this NSF 101 post on NSF’s Science Matters blog.



Hacking is a Broader Impact Activity

Members of Team Supergene, one of the winning teams, discussed their process in a virtual meeting with hackathon organizers. Clockwise from top left: Sherif Negm (team captain, junior); Dr. John Sproul (postdoc); Dr. Lucas Hemmer (postdoc); Xiaolu Wei (graduate student).

Advances in basic biological research methods have generated large amounts of data scattered across divergent datasets and disciplines.

Recognizing this, MCB-funded CAREER-awardee Dr. Amanda Larracuente (MCB-1844693) has developed a broader impact activity to build data literacy, organizing  week-long hackathons open to contestants of any skill level.

The first hackathon, held this past August, was a team effort between Larracuente, Matthew McCall, and Andrew McDavid, her co-chairs on the working group on Life and Biomedical Data Science at the University of Rochester’s Goergen Institute for Data Science. The challenge was to make predictions about a high-dimensional genomic dataset. “For this challenge, it helped to have teams with diverse experiences in computer programming, statistics, and some biology background. It was great to see participants with different backgrounds forming teams!” says Larracuente. Competitors entered the contest either solo or in self-assembled teams of four. Lone entrants who wanted a team experience were assigned to teams based on their self-assessed skills in statistics, programming, and GitHub. Participation was open to anyone enrolled at the University of Rochester, Larracuente’s home institution, and all skill levels and educational background were welcome.

In all, 44 contestants comprised 17 teams, including eight teams of undergraduates. Each day during the five-day contest, teams submitted their predictions to GitHub (a cloud-based hosting service for managing data repositories) and received feedback from the organizers. One important lesson learned, observes Larracuente, is to take advantage of existing campus outreach efforts to broaden recruitment efforts.

Her efforts are motived by her passion for increasing the participation of women and other populations traditionally underrepresented in the field of computational biology. “I really want to help students build confidence in their computational skillset,” says Larracuente.

 She may be succeeding. Khoa Hoang, an undergraduate majoring in microbiology and data science observed, “This has been a cool and beneficial learning experience for many of us…[the hackathon] motivated me a lot to take more data science courses. This is our first time analyzing high dimensional data and it has been a very interesting journey.”

*The division of Molecular and Cellular Bioscience (MCB) recently released a Dear Colleague Letter inviting proposals for conferences focusing on ways to both collate distributed information and synthesize data to advance research. Follow this link for more information on “Conferences to Prepare for the Transformation of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences Research through Information Synthesis and Integration” (NSF 21-017).

Sewage Sampling Offers Promising Method for Early Detection of COVID Outbreaks

One of the challenges facing researchers responding to the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is the ability to identify and track infection early. Predicting the spread of illness can help communities and governments know where to concentrate resources, focus outreach efforts, and how to alter policy.

One way that researchers have been able to detect early increases in cases is by sampling sewer systems. Because everyone flushes their toilet, sewer samples represent the health of the entire neighborhood on any given day. Researchers can detect a SARS-CoV-2 signal in the sewer before hospitals see an uptick in patients. The samples collected would track the rise and fall of infections in the community.

Dr. Julius Lucks (MCB-2028651) and his lab at Northwestern University in Chicago have made this kind of wide-scale sewer sampling possible by utilizing CRISPR Isothermal Amplification (CIA).  This approach allows samples to be processed in a single reaction at room temperature, making it a faster, cheaper, and a more scalable assay. The ability to have a point-of-contact test that takes less than an hour, costs less than a dollar, and is more accurate than a PCR-based method could change the way researchers approach SARS-CoV-2 tracking. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Adding Impact to your Broader Impacts: Office Hours with ARIS

Join program officers from the Directorate for Biological Sciences in a discussion of Broader Impacts with guest speaker Susan Renoe from the NSF-supported Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society (ARIS).

ARIS works with scientists to help them engage in activities that have meaningful and long-term impact in their communities and society. The center offers strategies for building capacity, growing partnerships, and leveraging existing resources to enhance the impact of individual and institutional efforts to benefit society.

Topic: How to Ensure That Your Broader Impact and Broadening Participation Plans Have IMPACT

Guest Speaker: Dr. Susan Renoe, Executive Director, ARIS (NSF award 1810732).

Time: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2 pm – 3pm EST.

Registration is required: Click here and select the November 18, 2020 option from the drop-down selection for “Time.”

Visit the Office Hours page of this blog for access to presentations from previous office hours.

Virtual Reality, Real Science

A student wearing virtual reality goggles sits inside the exhibit titled "Unbecoming Carbon."

When Dr. Iris Meier develops the lab component of a research-focused biology class that she co-teaches each year, titled Art and Science, she knows what the students are expected to learn
. . . during the first half of the semester. The second half depends upon the students: How will they combine their diverse interests and talents to create an artistic experience capable of changing the way participants view biological processes?

Meier approaches each semester by structuring course content around her current NSF-funded proposal. The first few weeks of class introduce biology students and students from the Art and Technology track within the Department of Art at Ohio State University to biology by having them conduct simple experiments. Next, students design and conduct their own experiments. Then, equipped with a deeper appreciation for the topic, the class develops its final project.

In 2019, that project, “Unbecoming Carbon,” used virtual reality to allow participants to enter a leaf pore as a carbon dioxide molecule and then travel through the plant’s biochemical processes to observe how the plant eventually emits molecules of oxygen. The exhibit was funded as a broader impact activity included with her award, “Function and Mechanism of Action of Plant-specific LINC Complexes in Pollen Tube and Guard Cell Biology” (MCB- 1613501).

Meier’s lab studies the structure and function of the plant nuclear envelope, with a focus on understanding the function of the LINC complex. Meier maintains an ongoing collaboration with Amy Youngs, associate professor in the Department of Art, to support the broader impacts activities.

Each year, the exhibits take about five weeks to develop and are open to the public for about three weeks. Assessments are conducted via a survey once participants leave the exhibit. But do they really learn anything? Meier thinks so: “My favorite interview is the visitor who said, ‘This is so cool! I’ll remember [this experience] my whole life, but if you had told me about this, I would have forgotten it in two minutes!’”


*Photo/Video by Amy M. Youngs
*Artwork by Ellie Bartlett, Jacklyn Brickman, Ashley Browne, Amanda Buckeye, Diva Colter, Mona Gazala, Youji Han, Saba Hashemi Shahraki, Brice Jordan, Liam Manning, Iris Meier, Brooke Stanley, Lily Thompson, Zachary Upperman, Stephen White, Taylor Woodie, and Amy Youngs

Resources for Broader Impacts: The Center for Advancing Research Impact in Society

The Center for Advancing the Societal Impacts of Research (ARIS) provides resources to support broader impact (BI) activities. The center sponsors trainings, provides fellowships, hosts online resources, and disperses information for scientists who are interested in strengthening their BI activities. ARIS also hosts an annual planning summit; the 2020 summit is April 28-30 in Durham, North Carolina. Learn more and register on their website.

ARIS, headquartered at the University of Missouri-Columbia, works closely with national and international researchers to “build capacity, advance scholarship, grow partnerships and provide resources to help [scientists] engage with and demonstrate the impact of research in their communities and society”. To learn more about the Center and how to put ARIS resources to use for your broader impacts activities, check out the ARIS resources page.

ARIS builds from and leverages the success of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI), a project previously supported by the Biological Sciences and Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorates at NSF (MCB-1408736). Now funded as a Center out of the Office of Integrative Activities (OIA-1810732), ARIS has expanded its size and scope to examine how “all research — including social science, art and humanities research — impacts society, and how society impacts the research enterprise.”

TOP FIVE OF 2019: MOST POPULAR POSTS OF THE YEAR

From broadening participation to increasing diversity and inclusion, MCB’s five most-viewed posts published in 2019 showcase our most read topics. Looking for ideas on how to improve your broader impacts? Read about Dr. Jewett’s BioBits kits. Interested in transitioning to a non-academic STEM career field? Dr. Cooper discusses how she ended up in university administration after a career as a researcher. New to NSF or interested in brushing up your reviewing skills? Read tips from MCB program directors on writing effective reviews.

In 2020, the MCB blog team looks forward to sharing information about exciting outreach efforts, funding opportunities, and more! Subscribe to notifications (on the right side of this page) to be the first to know what’s on MCB’s mind.

1. TEACHING CRISPR IN THE CLASSROOM: A NEW TOOL FOR TEACHERS

Students using BioBits kits.

Dr. Jewett developed a new method of teaching CRISPR – a gene editing tool – using BioBits kits. (Published June 7)

2. OPPORTUNITY AND INTENTION: NEVER SAY NEVER

Dr. Adrienne Cooper from Florida Memorial University.

Dr. Adrienne Cooper’s transition from STEM student to researcher to university administrator. (Published April 19)

3. HBCU-UP EIR: WEBINAR ON WRITING COMPETITIVE PROPOSALS

HBCU EiR Program graphic describing the solicitation.

MCB hosted a webinar on writing competitive proposals for faculty at HBCU institutions in March. (Published March 8)

4. BROADER IMPACTS — IF IT WORKS, KEEP DOING IT

High school and undergraduate student working together in O'Donnell Laboratory.

Dr. Allyson O’Donnell’s broader impact activity – “near peer mentoring” – pairs high school students from under-represented minorities with undergraduates in her lab. (Published June 27)

5. TIPS FOR WRITING EFFECTIVE REVIEWS

Tips for writing effective reviews infographic.

MCB Program Directors provide their top five tips for writing useful and informative reviews. (Published February 20)

Supplemental Funding Pays

Did you know that supplemental funding awards are available to help cover unexpected costs that arise during the course of NSF-funded research? Supplements allow a Principal Investigator to accomplish the original scope of the parent award when unforeseen circumstances occur.  Read on to find out how a supplemental equipment award enabled Dr. Mechthild Pohlschröder to continue her research.

Dr Pohlschroder's graduate student in front of a microscope next to a computer with biofilm samples displayed on the screen
Dr. Pohlschröder’s graduate student Zuha Mutan using the new camera to examine biofilm samples.

As a professor and the undergraduate chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Pohlschröder’s lab investigates how archaea, specifically Haloferax volcanii, forms biofilms, a common phenomenon where microorganisms aggregate, allowing them to survive in harsh environments.

Earlier this year, when a neighboring lab moved to a new location on campus, the Pohlschröder lab lost access to shared resources, including a microscope camera used to capture high-quality images of cells and structures, an essential component of the research funded by NSF (NSF 1817518).  A supplemental award enabled the lab to purchase a Leica DFC9000 digital camera, enabling the Dr. Pohlschröder’s group to continue with their pioneering work on archaea.

The new camera will also benefit the lab’s outreach and educational activities, which have broader impacts in the surrounding community. Dr. Pohlschröder’s science education programs reach middle and high school students across the Philadelphia metro area, including in underserved schools in West Philadelphia. The lab develops microbiology experiments designed for schools with limited resources. Further strengthening its reach, the Pohlschröder lab hosts training workshops for science teachers from Philadelphia and other cities, so that good science can reach even more students. The new, state-of-the-art imaging technology will play a role in advancing all of these outreach activities.

If you currently have an award from MCB and are interested in learning more about supplemental funding, please contact a Program Director in MCB to discuss.