The NSF GRFP requires that applicants explain the importance of their research through two domains:
The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge.
The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.
The intellectual merit criterion is usually pretty self-evident: all your accomplishments and greatest hits as a scholar. However, as a grant-writing mentor and coach, I’ve seen applicants struggle to articulate the latter. One exercise to help identify broader impacts involves thinking through different “types” of influence:
- How does your work benefit society?
- How will your research improve society?
- Can it influence policy?
- What will you do to help your research reach lay audiences? (e.g., talks, workshops, policy briefs, other forms of dissemination)
- How does your work benefit the field scientifically?*
- Does it introduce new concepts, theories, or knowledge?
- Does it test new methods?
- How else can it push boundaries of what is currently known?
- Does it cross any boundaries? (e.g., interdisciplinary work, interprofessional collaboration)
- How will you, on an individual level, contribute beyond your research?
- Will you incorporate broader impacts in the actual implementation of your work? (e.g., mentoring others)
- Will you be involved in service in your department, university, communities, and other groups? (e.g., volunteering, serving on graduate committees)
* This sometimes overlaps with intellectual merit, but you can also argue for a case here if appropriate.
Of course, you want to be careful not to overstate the impact of your research. That’s why it’s helpful to not just focus on the “quality” of your experiences, but the “quantity” too: the many avenues through which you can affect change. It can thus be useful to triangulate your broader impacts, including through consideration of the above questions.