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Writing a Strong Broader Impacts Statement in Research Proposals


Dr. Jeffrey Isenberg, M.D., M.P.H., LetPub Editor

May 2022

First things first: science costs money. To test any hypothesis in an objective and rigorous manner with proper controls and data analysis requires people and a technical and physical infrastructure that is built and supported through research funding. Regardless of the funding source (e.g., government, industry, foundation, philanthropy), scientists are tasked with explaining the importance of their questions in a way that can engender the support of their professional colleagues who provide feedback to the funding groups on the importance of the project and other interested parties such as the public. This feedback informs final decisions on which projects will be supported. As such, grant proposals uniformly encourage researchers to address the significance of their question in relation to the existing science with an eye on the future.

Ask yourself: Why is this research important and needed?

As one prepares the significance or broader impacts part of a research proposal, an existential posture is useful. That is, why does this question, and the work proposed to answer it, matter? One can start addressing this question by brainstorming answers to the following questions:

1. Does this question/hypothesis confront a challenge or obstruction to progress in the field?
2. Are the planned experiments well-designed and appropriate for answering the research question(s)?
3. Will the results impact the work of others and promote new inventions and innovation?
4. What are the impacts on human health? (This may or may not apply to certain research fields.)

Relate your broader impacts section to your proposal objectives

Similar to the Aims (or Background) section of the proposal, the significance or broader impacts section is the researcher’s chance to sell their work and attract the attention and enthusiasm of their colleagues, including the review committee. Details in the significance section, such as information on prior studies, should expand upon the ideas first introduced briefly in the Aims and again in the Background section of the proposal. Importantly, one should organize these ideas in a way that is easy to follow and logical. For example:

1. A common approach is to open with explaining the overall importance of the question to be addressed. Here, the reader must be informed exactly what the problem is that you are confronting. Where is the science ‘stuck,’ and what does this mean?
2. Second, the message should convince others why overcoming this impediment is necessary and important. Will the information resulting from the successful completion of the proposal address a true, unmet need? For example, if the proposal will develop a new therapy that is less expensive, easier to use, and safer than the current standards of care, explain the downsides of continuing with the standard of care.
3. Third, relate your message to the funding organization’s goals generally and specifically to a given grant request. For example, if the goals of the organization soliciting the grant application are to promote training of certain groups, how will your proposal, if funded, achieve this goal and what impact will this have on science training now and in the future?
4. Finally, an expert analysis of the existing research relevant to the question of the proposal should be provided. This analysis should cover the robustness and reproducibility, or lack thereof, of other relevant studies as they relate to each specific goal of the proposal, as laid out in the Aims or Background section. This analysis should be included in your proposal as it tells your readers you have enough expertise to provide critical feedback in the area. In other words, you must illustrate to the reviewers that you developed your research question(s) after a thorough inquiry into the field. Keep in mind, however, it is always best to be respectful and helpful when critiquing the work of others.

Distinguishing your significance section from others

To finish the significance or broader impacts section of a proposal, it is essential to elucidate what the benefits and contributions derived from the proposed research will be. This is the forward-looking part of this section as well as the overall proposal, and authors must be optimistic, realistic and specific. In a reviewer’s eyes, boilerplate platitudes suggest the researcher has not enough information or is not comprehensively thinking of the outcomes of their research, or both. The significance of the proposal should be distilled into and summarized by a single sentence that leads off this part of the section. This can then be expanded on in several following sentences. If allowed by the formatting guidelines of the funding organization, one tip is to use italics to highlight this opening sentence. If one expects secondary benefits from the project, such as new reagents, technologies, or implications for other areas of study, list them following these opening sentences.

Lastly, identifying and articulating a plan for the broader impacts of your research is a must. Remember, there are many different audiences that may benefit from your research, and therefore consider how you can broaden participation in activities you are already involved in; tap into existing community outreach programs; reach out to industry or regulatory agencies; and look for ways to maximize societal benefit.

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