A Brief Introduction: To Realigning the Broader Impacts Conversation



If you are reading this, you are probably somewhat familiar with the term “broader impacts” and the associated broader impacts criterion. My intent with this discussion is to share some thoughts and ideas about broader impacts which have yet to be explored or made explicit, by the broader impacts community – namely governmental agencies, institutions, faculty, researchers, scientist, scholars, and the nation. If you find these thoughts and ideas interesting please let me know and share them with a friend or colleague.


The Background and Issue with Broader Impacts 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) broader impacts criterion was formally introduced as a new criterion in 1997. More specifically this additional grant-writing expectation was communicated to the research community via Notice 121, New Criteria for NSF Proposals, on July 10, 1997 and officially implemented on October 1, 1997. During this time the NSF broader impacts definition for the criterion was described to all as encompassing the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. This criterion definition remains the same. However, both in the past and now, questions as to what the term meant/means at a conceptually rigorous level continued/continues to bring about much discussion. Other points of discussion also include – how one could be successful, transformative, innovative, and creative in the NSF BI criterion. Among those in the academy, namely faculty, and the broader impacts community, this is an issue that is still debated. So what was and continues to be the problem? What was and still is the enigma surrounding both the broader impacts concept and criterion?


The Main Contributing Factor as to Why the Confusion Over Broader Impacts

Traditionally in the academy, individuals would first start with models, laws, theories, and conceptual frameworks. These laws, theories, models, conceptual, and theoretical frameworks would be accompanied by a complementary methodological framework that allowed people, units, and organizations to develop and move beyond current thoughts, knowledge, techniques, insights, and technologies. This method of applying theory to methodology and practice was, has been, and still is a driving force behind many of today’s social, technological, innovative, creative, and transformative advancements.

When NSF issued broader impacts (BI) under the auspices of a criterion – a criterion being a principle or standard by which something may be decided or judged – researchers were forced to implement a series of steps, methods, and actions to be taken to achieve societal benefits. Societal benefits would then be judged on a series of guidelines to determine the merit of a submitted proposal. What this inevitably caused was implicit and explicit thinking about methods and/or a methodological framework that would meet the NSF’s BI criterion requirements. After years of researchers wrestling with understanding the NSF BI criterion, various stakeholders made sense of BI by exchanging the criterion methodology for the BI concept and theory. The trend became viral, leaving the nation little to no explicit provision of a theoretical and/or conceptual framework through which the concept of broader impacts was adequately practiced or explained. Evidence of this lacking conceptual/theoretical understanding of broader impacts can still be readily seen by simply asking the question – what is the difference between broader impact and impact?

This inversion created a paradigmatic disconnect from the trusted and widely used method of applying theory to methodology and practice that had been cultivated over centuries of advancement. Which caused an uproar in the academic community, created mass confusion, and left many others trying to remedy how to move the BI endeavor forward in a way that did not pigeonhole the nation to an agency criterion. So what are some of the more systemic problems this paradigmatic disconnect has caused? The resulting aftermath left many in the academy, who had once objected to the BI criterion, specifically faculty, to assume the restricted ideology – namely that they needed to figure out how to do NSF BI in order to move along with their academic/research lives. Meanwhile the other half of the academy (those outside of STEM disciplines) became uninterested because the concept appeared to be a function of one agency. Hence the unsettled non-ubiquitination across the academy, NSF, and many other agency groups.


The Challenges Ahead and Solution

For those who see this as a problem, and it is, the solution seems to suggest a realignment to how we think about broader impacts. Two of the questions that need to be asked are this: what is broader impacts at a global core conceptual and theoretical level and what are its appropriate applications, so as to not be skewed by a criterion? The implications here create the need for a renewed attention to the field of theory, study, and practice called the Research and Scholarship of Broader Impacts (SoBI). A more rigorous investigation into BI would not only provide clarity about the concept but would allow for the possible elucidation of a BI conceptual/theoretical framework. Once addressed, more insightful BI conversations could occur and much needed BI Core Competencies could be developed, especially for those who apply to NSF. In addition, this would allow individuals, organizations, agencies, and institutions to operate and be more effective, creative, innovative, and transformative in the NSF BI criterion. Only then with some greater certainty could we move the BI and NSF BI endeavor more adequately and expeditiously forward – all of which would provide a greater benefit to society.

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