Moving Beyond Basic Notions of Broader Impacts

Well, it is currently 12:45am in the morning and I feel like writing a little bit about broader impacts.  I am going to do some free-thought writing on the fly and see what comes out (no edits, no corrections), so beware!

So lets get to it shall we!

I see a lot of people in the Academy, especially as it relates to broader impacts- thinking that broader impacts is only about doing outreach or some educational opportunities, or something that is only germane to National Science Foundation (NSF) proposals.

For the record, I am going to say it is not and in actuality this is such a limited and relatively uneducated illogical perspective. Don’t get me wrong I understand why it appears that way.

Politics will be politics, action has a tendency to drive culture, and people will tie so much emotion or be so emotionally attached to a particular outcome like funding that they won’t want to hear or act on behalf of any other alternative. Even if that alternative is more logical and factually accurate.

But before I get on my soap box and start rambling about this issue, let me get back to my original thought at hand with regards to broader impacts.

Many don’t see that broader impacts can be a key to revenue generation, financial growth, and research support beyond applying for a grant.

This would not be only for faculty but also for an entire institution and those involved in the process.

One example that moves beyond rudimentary understanding of broader impacts would be to take your research and build a business and selling products (goods and services) that benefit others.

Yep, that’s right, this is also broader impacts folks.

Another example would be to build relationships with others in society to benefit others, like consortiums with investors while also using it as a way to support your research.

Click on the link or see the picture below for an example of what I am talking about,

Many just don’t or can’t move past the same rudimentary broader impacts activities and NSF proposals when broader impacts is so much more. The above picture represents faculty and institutional -level broader impacts.

If you notice in the picture on the bottom right corner it says Research Impact Enterprises. This company, my company is designed to do just that, well at least one of its functions, to take the broader impacts of research to that next level.

FYI – you can also have broader impacts of teaching, service, etc., and any occupation but I am mostly focused on the broader impacts of research for the above post.

That’s all I got to say tonight, so good night, enough of my rambling, it is now 1:07 AM and I need to get some sleep!

Research Into the Effects and Affects of Broader Impacts and Research Impact Initiatives

For the last twenty-five years there has been an increased emphasis on the importance of broader impacts. Mostly in part to the establishment of the broader impacts criterion instituted by the National Science Foundation (NSF). However, there is a limited amount of information provided on the importance, affects, and effects of broader impacts.

So, below I have provided an on-going qualitative and quantitative studies snapshot of the affects and effects of broader impacts and research impact initiatives…

When quality of all proposal aspects are controlled, data being collected suggest that those who have and work with a seasoned institutional broader impacts office or specialist are 5 to 16% more likely to receive a National Science Foundation (NSF) award compared to those who don’t have access to these resources. This award range depends on how, when, and the frequency that broader impacts help is indirectly or directly provided for a NSF proposal. Whether this is permanent after the sunset of these offices or a specialist leaves an institution remains unclear.

Those with institutional broader impacts offices or well-developed broader impact networks at their colleges and universities also appear to have an overall increase in faculty, student, administrator, research, community, societal, business, and industry engagement.

Anecdotal evidence highly suggest that these offices and networks 1) become a hub of communication for an institution, 2) help to increase the quality of mentorship and training of undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, and faculty and 3) help to increase the number of individual and large collaborative proposals submitted by faculty to a variety of foundations and agencies other than NSF.

It is speculated that one of the reasons all the stated above happens is that the implementation of  broader impacts in concept and practice acts as a catalyst for culture change at a college or university. Aside from speculation, having a centralized broader impacts or research impact office that works on behalf of an entire institution sends a signal to a variety of societal communities and all university and college institutional members that societal members outside of the Academy walls are valued, important, and a high priority.

The take home message is that having an institutionally supported visible and viable mechanism or entity guiding impact, broader impacts, or research impact is not only beneficial for the research enterprise and those in the Academy but also important for the public’s perception of and interaction with academic institutions.

A Five-Minute Summary On How To Write Research Objectives For NSF Proposals


There is a lot of information out there on how to write a research objective. However, finding reliable information while trying to accomplish everything else on one’s plate can consume a lot of time. Meaning, for those who are new to writing NSF proposals, figuring out how to construct a high-quality research objective can quickly become a daunting task.

Below I provide some info to either help those who would like a quick refresher on or who are new to writing research objectives for NSF proposals. Information in Figures 1, 2, and 3 were taken from the power point slides of a March 2009, NSF CAREER workshop at George Mason University.

What was provided in this workshop nine years ago still appears to be the most concise overview on NSF research objectives to date. I have reorganized and slightly modified the information in the figures that came from these 2009 slides to ensure relevancy for current NSF PI/CoPI research objective expectations. If there is anything major that I have missed, please let me know. If you would like to see this on SlideShare please click here.

Writing the Research Objective

Writing the research objective is in many ways considered to be the hardest part of the proposal. In fact, one of the quickest ways to have your proposal dismissed by a reviewer is to provide a poorly written research objective.

Having a well-stated objective allows and leads the reader or reviewer to inherently understand the approach that will or should probably be taken to accomplish the specified aim/s. It also helps the writer to determine the best way to organize, establish, and demonstrate many of the intellectual merit aspects of their proposal.

When writing a research objective there are certain words that imply to the reader or reviewer that one is not doing research. Above all, make sure to avoid these words when writing your objective, Figure 1. In some cases there are exceptions to this rule. If provided, one should always check the related NSF solicitation.

There are also other best practices that should be considered when writing your research objective, Figure 1. For example, best practices suggest that one should provide the research objective early in the proposal and it should be kept under twenty-five (25) words. Having more than 25 words for standard PI/CoPI NSF proposals will exponentially decrease the quality of the research objective (i.e., limit readability and clarity of the objective).

Following these best practices will help one to avoid writing research objectives incorrectly such as those provided in Figure 2. These research objectives are incorrect for several reasons. For example, the first three objectives provided in Figure 2 use the words, “Design or Develop”. The fourth research objective showcases the proverbial “State-Of-The-Union” address format.

Lastly, in Figure 3, I provide ways or structures of how a research objective can be written that conveys to the reader or NSF reviewer that there is a high likelihood that one has submitted a research proposal.


I have provided a quick summary of what it takes to write a quality research objective. As with anything there are always more specifics that could be provided but I hope that this short synopsis of how to write a research objective points you in the right direction. If there are any questions or comments, please email me at I wish you all the very best on your NSF proposal submissions!

Written by:

Dr. Michael Thompson aka “The Broader Impacts Guy”

Michael was the Founding Director of the Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) organization, Senior Staff of the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), and Affiliate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oklahoma (OU). Dr Thompson is a member of Social Value International (SVI) and Social/Societal Value United States (SV-US) which employs and embodies Social/Societal Return on Investment (SROI) methods and practice. Dr. Thompson is also a member of the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI). He served on the National Alliance for Broader Impacts (NABI) Working Group, which developed the Broader Impacts Guiding Principles and Questions for National Science Foundation Proposals.

A Research-Based Understanding and Approach to Broader Impacts

At some point in time, if we ever want to move past, “hear-say”, when it comes to broader impacts, we have to start treating broader impacts just like any other field and profession.

This means to hold ourselves accountable to a professional standard and stop with the anecdotal evidence and look at all of the data/facts and conduct rigorous research.

Once we begin to do those things we can then start to develop appropriate answers to questions that have been asked concerning broader impacts. I guess those are my two cents.

If you are interested in reading more about research and evidence-based approach to broader impacts click the link below.

Moving Towards A Research-Based Understanding and Approach to Broader Impacts

Seventeen (17) Things to Consider When Starting a Broader Impacts Organization

When considering or starting a broader impacts organization on your campus it is important to understand that context matters. The research-based scholarly definition of broader impacts is “a process with people/stakeholders to achieve a societal benefit in a finite time that is measured. This can be through one’s teaching, research, service, and occupation. There can be broader impacts of almost anything. If done appropriately broader impacts can lead to sustainable positive impacts” [1] [2] [3] [4]. Understanding this as it relates to broader impacts is also important – whether you are reshaping an old organization to align with a broader impacts concept; starting an office or organization focused on the National Science Foundation (NSF) Broader Impacts Criterion; focused on other agency or foundation broader impacts; or establishing a similar organization internationally based off an international broader impacts-like term or phrase.

Based on lessons learned, I have also provided seventeen (17) objectives, goals, or tasks below that should help you succeed in your broader impacts office or organization endeavors. It may also help you navigate potential unseen pitfalls along the way. Use this as a “Start a Broader Impacts Office or Organization Checklist”, as it is suggested that each item (i-xvii) be completed and assessed every year.

i. set up a viable, flexible, sustainable, and evolving infrastructure to meet university and faculty needs;

ii. determine organizational model, establish vision, mission, and value propositions;

iii. determine the number of primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences;

iv. establish a presence throughout your University and State as a broader impacts organization;

v. help faculty with all aspects of NSF broader impacts;

vi. help the university and state to understand broader impacts in general;

vii. establish the trajectory for successfully moving beyond the POC phase;

viii. determine and show the Return On Investment (ROI);

ix. establish evaluative and assessment protocols and strategies to determine sustainability;

x. develop a research-based approach to practice as it pertains to achieving societal benefit;

xi. develop relationships and partnerships with administrative leaders;

xii. develop an understanding and appreciation of faculty needs at your university, college, or in your specific unit (start doing this immediately!!!);

xiii. establish a university communication and response plan;

xiv. understand university structure and research office;

xv. assess if your organization is having a positive impact on the university, state, and national culture – international if applicable;

xvi. determine impact path of the organization;

xvii. develop a yearly report for upper administration summarizing i-xvi with appropriate examples and data, how it specifically links to their strategic plan or strategic action plan and university initiatives, the specific goals from last year and how they were accomplished, the specific goals for the next year, unexpected opportunities and challenges, and long-term goals in five and ten years.



[1]. Adetunji, O. and Renoe, S. (2017). Assessing Broader Impacts. MRS Advances, 1-6. Doi: 10.1557/ adv.2017.136.

[2]. Adetunji, O. and Thompson, M. (2016). The Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) 2014 Lexicon Modification for the Brown University Engaged Scholarship and Broader Impacts Joint Committee Year End Report of 2015-2016. Brown University.

[3]. The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). BI Definitions Guide: An abbreviated collection of explanations that begins to provide a common language when discussing, practicing, understanding, and better articulating the dimensions of broader impacts (BI). [Brochure]. [Norman, Oklahoma]. Thompson, M.

[4]. The Broader Impacts in Research (BIR) Organization. (2014). Broader Impacts Conceptual Framework (BICF) Lexicon. The University of Oklahoma. Thompson, M.

Understanding National Science Foundation (NSF) Broader Impacts Part 3

Here is Part 3 of the basic core competencies needed concerning NSF broader impacts. In this video you will find out the: research-based scholarly definition of broader impacts; difference between broader impacts and impact; meaning of broader impacts identity and; five basic structures of broader impacts through the Research and Scholarship of Broader Impacts (SoBI). Part 4 will be coming soon!