Broader Impacts: What, Why, and How


Richard E. Ladner

University of Washington



October 27, 2006


Because of my work with persons with disabilities and my role as a researcher I have been chosen to serve on the NSF Committee on Equal Opportunity in Science and Engineering (CEOSE).  This committee was established by the US Congress to advise the NSF about the policies and activities of the NSF to encourage full participation of women, minorities, and other groups currently underrepresented in scientific, engineering, and professional fields. Every two years the committee must report their observations and recommendations to Congress.  The committee is currently preparing its 2006 report.  Earlier reports and information about the committee can be found on the web page:


Being on this committee has heightened my awareness of the Broader Impacts criterion for review of NSF Proposals.  There are only two merit criteria for review of proposals, with the second being Intellectual Merit.  Most of us understand Intellectual Merit, but Broader Impacts is not so easily understood.  For the record, here are their current definitions from the NSF Grant Proposal Guide.


What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?

How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project? (If appropriate, the reviewer will comment on the quality of prior work.) To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative and original concepts? How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity? Is there sufficient access to resources?

What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

In the eyes of NSF these two criteria are equally weighted.  Indeed, if one totally ignores the Broader Impacts by not mentioning it in a proposal, then it will be returned without review.  One way to think about the Broader Impacts criterion is that when we receive money from the people of the United States through NSF, the people would like to know ahead of time of what benefit the research may or will be to society.  If there is little or no benefit then why should the people continue to support NSF?  When NSF goes to Congress to ask for money, it is going to the people’s representatives, who ask for justification to spend the people’s money on scientific research. Basically, NSF’s funding, and ours indirectly, depend on the belief by the public that broader impacts come from our research. 


Some people have said to me that a focus on Broader Impacts is a move away from basic research to more mission oriented research, or research with strings attached.  If we look at the ways that we can satisfy the Broader Impacts criterion, they are very general, and relate to education, broadening participation by underrepresented groups, and other benefits to society.  Please read the representative activities printed after this article, that can also be found at, for concrete ideas for how to include Broader Impacts in our proposals.


As SIGACT Chair, I am trying to help increase the funding for computer science theory research.  The best way to increase funding for research is to convince people it is important to them and the people around them.   There is a difference between “important” and “useful”.  Artists are able to convince people to buy art, not because it is useful, but because it inspires them.  Astronomers convince people to pay them to study the stars, not because they are useful (except for our own star, the sun), but because the stars are fascinating in their own right.  Understanding the birth and possible death of the universe is of no practical value, but is just a fundamental question.


All this said, I am a firm believer in serendipity.  Often, research leads to unexpected results and unanticipated applications.  Unfortunately, this phenomenon is quite rare and probably not common enough to convince people to provide large amounts of research money.   The best approach is to have a great story about the benefits of theoretical computer science research and its promise for the future.  This will generate enough money for all of us so that rare serendipitous events will happen naturally in the course of doing our research.


Putting my CEOSE hat on again, one way to have broader impact is to include more women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in our research projects.    Another way is to do outreach to K-12 schools or museums. Widening the vision of our research programs beyond their small technical boundaries takes some effort and creativity.  The reward is more appreciation for our work from a wider audience.  This appreciation indirectly translates to funding by enabling NSF to successfully argue for money from the people for research.