Newsletter: Revisiting Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact

Posted on January 1, 2016 by  in Newsletter - () ()

Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University

If you have ever written a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) or participated in a proposal review panel for NSF, you probably instantly recognize the terms Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts as NSF’s merit review criteria. Proposals are rated and funding decisions are made based on how well they address these criteria. Therefore, proposers must describe the potential of their proposed work to advance knowledge and understanding (Intellectual Merit) and benefit society (Broader Impacts).

Like cramming for an exam and then forgetting 90 percent of what you memorized, it’s all too easy for principal investigators to lose sight of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts after proposal submission. But there are two important reasons to maintain focus on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts after an award is made and throughout project implementation.

First, the goals and activities expressed in a proposal are commitments about how a particular project will advance knowledge (Intellectual Merit) and bring tangible benefits to individuals, institutions, communities, and/or our nation (Broader Impacts). Simply put, PIs have an ethical obligation to follow through on these commitments to the best of their abilities.

Second, when funded PIs seek subsequent grants from NSF, they must describe the results of their prior NSF funding in terms of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. In other words, proposers must explain how they used their NSF funding to actually advance knowledge and understanding and benefit society. PIs who have evidence of their accomplishments in these areas and can convey it succinctly will be well-positioned to seek additional funding. To ensure evidence of both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts are being captured, PIs should revisit project evaluation plans with their evaluators, crosschecking the proposal’s claims about potential Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in relation to the evaluation questions and data collection plan to make sure compelling evidence is captured.

Last October, I conducted a workshop on this topic at the ATE Principal Investigators Conference with colleague Kirk Knestis, an evaluator from Hezel Associates. Dr. Celeste Carter, ATE program co-lead, spoke about how to frame results of prior NSF support in proposals. She noted that a common misstep that she has seen in proposals is when proposers speak to results from prior support by simply reiterating what they said they were going to do in their funded proposals, rather than describing the actual outcomes of the grant. Project summaries (one-page descriptions that address a proposed project’s Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts that are required as part of all NSF proposals) are necessarily written in a prospective, future-oriented manner because the work hasn’t been initiated yet. In contrast, the Results of Prior NSF Support sections are about completed work and therefore are written in past tense and should include evidence of accomplishments. Describing achievements and presenting evidence of the quality and impact of those achievements shows reviewers that the proposer is a responsible steward of federal funds, can deliver on promises, and is building on prior success.

Take time now, well before it is time to submit a new proposal or a Project Outcomes Report, to make sure you haven’t lost sight of the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact aspects of your grant and how you promised to contribute to these national priorities.