Understanding NSF’s rationale for implementing the Second Criterion helps in both addressing and assessing the “broader impacts” of proposed research.
Consider Criterion 2 in a larger context. One of the main reasons NSF changed their merit review criteria in 1997 was to highlight the “broader impacts” of the research it funds – both for Congress and for the public at large. Criterion 2 is NSF’s attempt to garner the participation of members of the scientific and engineering community in making the case for continued (or increased) funding of basic science and engineering. If Criterion 1 is useful in explaining the “intellectual merit” of the proposed research to a group of expert peers, Criterion 2 is useful in explaining the “broader impacts” of the proposed research to a group of non-expert (but purse string holding) members of society.
Consider Criterion 2 as an expression of basic principles. NSF is explicitly committed to two principles that find expression in Criterion 2:
• The principle of integration entails the idea that research should be integrated with (rather than isolated from) education. NSF supports the idea that individuals “may concurrently assume responsibilities as researchers, educators, and students . . . [in order to] infuse education with the excitement of discovery and enrich research through the diversity of learning perspectives.”
Criterion 2 expresses the principle of integration when it asks “How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding [i.e., research] while promoting teaching, training, and learning [i.e., education]?” The point is not simply to include some graduate students or a post-doc as research assistants, but rather to interweave research and education (of others as a teacher, but also of oneself as a student) to the mutual benefit of both.
• The principle of diversity entails the idea that different perspectives are necessary to the advancement of science and engineering. NSF supports the idea that broadening participation to include underrepresented perspectives “is essential to the health and vitality of science and engineering.”
Criterion 2 expresses this point when it asks “How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups?” The point is not simply to include some women or ethnic minorities for the sake of political correctness, but rather to broaden participation of underrepresented perspectives to enrich and ensure the progress of science and engineering.
Criterion 2 also expresses an implicit commitment to a third basic principle:
• The principle of ethics entails a reasonable consideration of the possible ethical consequences of the research being done.
It is not expected that every possible and indirect ethical and societal effect of the proposed research can be identified beforehand. The point is only that scientific and technical research does not exist in a vacuum. Moreover, sometimes it is the researcher him or herself who is in the best position spot possible societal implications of the research being conducted.
Consider some of the concrete, lasting impacts of your research. Beyond adding to the store of knowledge, could your research lead to anything concrete? Will it “enhance the infrastructure of research and education” by garnering new facilities or instruments? Will it require you to consult or collaborate with others you might not ordinarily come into contact with (e.g., experts in other fields)? If so, will you maintain your relationship past the period of the grant (in the form of a network or partnership)? You might even consider “formalizing” your relationship in the form of a research consortium.
Consider ways to publicize your research beyond the professional journals in your field. Criterion 2 asks “Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?” Given NSF’s adherence to the principles of integration and diversity, finding ways to communicate one’s research beyond the narrow walls of academe (not to mention the even narrower walls of your academic specialty) could educate others who might not ordinarily read specialized journals. In addition, finding new ways to communicate something to others is often the best way to learn something new for oneself.
Consider some of the possible ramifications of your research on society. Criterion 2 asks “What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?” This is the broadest of the sub-questions asked by Criterion 2. As such it is both the most difficult question to answer and the one that provides the most leeway to let your imagination run free. If you were to disseminate your results more broadly, what might some other scientists or engineers, social scientists, or humanists think about or do with it? Suppose you were totally successful in your proposed activity – where might it lead from there? Would it change the way you or others think or live?
Consider consulting others. Try running your ideas by an NSF program officer, a colleague in your own field or a related field, a professor in the social sciences and/or humanities, or even a non-academic member of the lay public. Remember that Criterion 2 is meant primarily to “justify” your research in terms that the non-expert can readily understand. Finally, we also invite you to consult us.