NSF Broader Impacts Review Process

Review Process for Broader Impacts

Program directors and panel members differ in their assessment and valuation of Broader Impacts activities. Since there is no way to anticipate how stringently each reviewer will consider the Broader Impacts criterion, having strong BI sections is critical for minimizing risk. A strong BI section cannot hurt a proposal. One of the primary discrepancies is around whether it’s more important for an activity to be innovative or to be a recognized program with a long, positive track record. 

  • NSF panelists are given the opportunity to rank proposals they’d like to review based on their expertise, but they are not guaranteed their choices.  

  • Panelists are always trained on review procedures by NSF staff members and the review training now places a greater emphasis on the Broader Impacts section than it did historically.  

  • Reviewers may be provided with the guiding questions shown below as part of their training. 

BI Guiding Questions for NSF Panelists

BI Guiding Questions for NSF Panelists
  1. What is the potential for proposed activity to benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes? 
  2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts? 
  3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale?  Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success? 
  4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities? 
  5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities? 
  6. Though NSF panelists have approximately one month to review proposals, once the panel convenes for review panel members may spend only 30 minutes reviewing your entire proposal, of which less than 10 may be devoted to Broader Impacts. 
  7. Exact time depends on the volume of proposals and total time available for discussion, but this underscores the need to have BI sections that are clear and concise. 
  8. A stellar BI section will not rescue a proposal with weak Intellectual Merit, but a weak BI section is enough to hamper an otherwise excellent proposal. 
  9. Your NSF Program Director makes the final funding recommendations. 
  10. The NSF Panelists give their recommendations to the Program Director, who makes final funding recommendations based on a variety of criteria. The Program Directors ultimately have to justify their decisions to NSF leadership, so they are unlikely to fund proposals with weak BI components. This is also why it is advisable to call your Program Director if you have questions about what they expect for BI! Different NSF programs can have different preferences and expectations. 
  11. What is the potential for proposed activity to benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?