Broader impacts for science, on a national scale

The National Science Foundation (NSF) receives around 50,000 grant applications each year, disbursing more than $7 billion in research funds. Only one in five projects receive awards, but the winners are not judged solely on the scientific merits of their proposed research. Applicants must also show how their work will improve society.

Penn researchers have a shoulder to lean on in fulfilling this “broader impact” requirement. The Science Outreach Initiative, organized under the School of Arts & Sciences, helps even the most fundamental, early-stage research connect with the world at large, through education, engagement, and community service.

Now, it is part of a national coalition of likeminded institutions that have come together to expand the reach of their efforts.

The Network for Broader Impacts (N4BI) is the result of a $500,000 NSF grant to fund a five-year, multi-institutional initiative designed to encourage education and outreach efforts that communicate the value of taxpayers’ investment in federal scientific research. Jane Horwitz, director of the Science Outreach Initiative, is one of its founding members and a co-principal investigator.

Broader impacts are not limited to direct societal benefits, like increasing the efficiency of solar cells or making stronger building materials. Especially for researchers whose work is more fundamental than applied, broader impacts can mean helping disseminate their findings and improving scientific literacy. Other examples include holding public lectures, demonstrating experiments in schools, as well as establishing positions and training opportunities for young scientists who live in underserved areas.

Penn’s Science Outreach Initiative already provides a database of such opportunities through the STEM Outreach Matrix. But just as researchers seek collaborations from across geographical boundaries and institutions, N4BI will help match engagement efforts with their research efforts, broadening their reach beyond the Philadelphia area.  

“This is exactly what we need to be doing, to reduce redundancy, increase knowledge transfer, and improve impact,” says Horwitz.