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NSF takes broad look at broader impacts

bruer2A National Science Foundation (NSF) task force has finalized its recommendations for tweaking the agency’s two merit review criteria, ‘intellectual merit’ and ‘broader impacts’. And central to that effort was a non-prescriptive, big-tent definition of broader impacts, says task force co-chair John Bruer (pictured), who presented the report on Tuesday to the National Science Board in Washington, DC.

“We don’t dictate what type of activities are intellectual merit,” says Bruer, president of the James McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis. “By the same token, we shouldn’t be prescriptive about what constitutes broader impacts. We’re not being overly prescriptive for either of them.”

Since 1997, the NSF has required all grant proposers to justify their requests not just on intellectual merit, but also on this notion of broader impacts. Yet researchers have found the requirements distressingly vague. Legislation passed by Congress in 2010 confirmed the importance of broader impacts, and also tried to be more specific, listing some of the activities that would count as having societal benefit. But when the task force’s May 2011 draft report dutifully repeated some of these examples, some critics worried that the NSF’s criteria would end up being too specific. Bruer’s team has since removed the list. “It raised problems about why some things were on the list and others not,” says Bruer.

As a result, the task force stripped down its recommendations and kept the wording for the two criteria essentially the same as before. The two criteria now come along with three principles, one of which is for researchers and institutions to gather data, whenever possible, assessing the effectiveness of not only the activities relating to intellectual merit, but also the broader impacts.

The National Science Board is likely to approve the final report on Wednesday. At that point, the NSF will begin implementing its recommendations. One thing that remains to be done is finding the right balance in shouldering the responsibility of broader impacts between principal investigator and institution, says NSF director Subra Suresh. “The responsibility cannot be bounced between the organization and the individual.”

Correction: 14 December

An earlier version of this blog post included a quote that incorrectly asserted that a piece of US legislation had not mentioned increased diversity in science as an explicit goal when, in fact, it had.


  1. Report this comment

    Lon Bordin said:

    While this area is important what they should be focusing on is to make the tent bigger.


    Two major grants per PI. (Does not include training grants or equipment grants)

    The limit will neutralize the disparity that currently exists while creating space for all the upcoming post-docs and graduate students.

  2. Report this comment

    J. Britt Holbrook said:

    This is a remarkably good move by NSB.

    Yes, researchers have complained for years that the Broader Impacts Criterion is too vague. This is a misguided complaint (see:

    Kudos to NSB for rethinking their attempt to make broader impacts ‘frighteningly clear’!

    Whether members of the scientific community realize it or not, NSB has just moved to preserve their autonomy.

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