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Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

While the terms “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts” are specific to applications for funding from the National Science Foundation, the general concept is universal to nearly all sponsors. When a sponsor uses the term “intellectual merit” (or some other equivalent phrasing) what they’re asking the applicant to do is to explain why this particular project is necessary and why it should be funded.

Any proposal for funding, regardless of the sponsor, should clearly identify a gap in our current knowledge and then explain why that gap is critical to a deeper understanding of the topic. The proposal should draw a clear and unmistakable connection between this gap in our understanding and the activities and outcomes in the proposed project.

As you can see in the examples below, there is a particular emphasis on novelty. The result of your proposal should be something new, something that didn’t exist before. The NSF Guidelines directly state one of the criteria for evaluating a proposal: What is the potential for the proposed activity to advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields? Answer the question convincingly, and you’re on the way to being funded.


Strong Intellectual Merit Statements

Example 1:

Understanding the role of vascular changes in stress, brain injury, and learning and memory will open new doors in brain plasticity research. Much of the current literature has focused on neurons rather than vasculature. I will change this by discovering how stress and brain injury affects vascular plasticity (angiogenesis) and learning and memory. While studies investigating the role of vasculature in brain plasticity are showing promise, there is a long way to go. New knowledge of what angiogenic mechanisms, growth factors, and receptors are involved in stress and brain injury will allow us to further map the angiogenic cascade. My current project, which addresses stress, has the potential to shed light on how stress affects memory. For physicians and clinicians, this research could result in new therapeutic treatments that could treat and ultimately alleviate clinical conditions related to stress and vascular changes, such as anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, and stroke. 

Example 2:

This new BIE method will be designed from a novel combination of the solution decomposition with fast summation and multigrid techniques. Its program package will be another powerful tool for predicting the electrostatics and solvation free energies of ionic solvated biomolecules. The new NMPBE/PBE numerical algorithms and program packages can be adapted to current popular PBE program packages such as DelPhi, UHBD, and APBS to significantly improve their performance and accuracy in the calculation of biomolecular electrostatics, solvation free energy, and binding free energies. The new BIE techniques developed for this project can also be applied to the numerical solutions of many important interface problems that come from fluid dynamics and mechanical engineering and can have a significant impact on the research community at large.

Examples courtesy of the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

For additional advice, you can read this article from Texas A&M University or review the PAPP Guide from the NSF.

The term “Broader Impact” is again specific to National Science Foundation Proposals, but the concept is to be found in the review criteria used by almost every sponsor.  The term “Broader Impact” is the sponsor’s shorthand for asking what else your project will accomplish. Aside from filling that critical gap in our knowledge, what are the other effects of your pursuing and completing this project? In the words of the National Science Foundation, how will this project “benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes?”

For the National Science Foundation, a typical broader impact will be the number of students (graduate or undergraduate) who will feel the effects of this project.  Some will feel a direct impact because they are actively working with the researchers in the field or in the lab. Others will be indirectly affected because the new knowledge created by this project will become part of the researcher’s pedagogy. But those are not the only broader impacts, and they can vary widely depending on the project that you’re proposing and the sponsor’s own societal interests.


Strong Broader Impact Statements

Example 1:

“The project will generate crucial insights into the deformation mechanisms governing mechanical properties of hierarchical nanoporous metals, thus providing a basic scientific knowledge necessary for controlling and optimizing their properties and bringing closer wider adaptation of this class of materials. Research activities are closely integrated with education and outreach efforts: both graduate and undergraduate students will work on the project, thus gaining cutting-edge skills and expertise in nanotechnology and science; the PI will work with high school teachers and students in the Atlanta area through Georgia Intern Fellowship for Teachers program and through Georgia Tech's Women in Engineering summer camps; some of the results will be introduced in engineering courses at Georgia Tech as case studies; the PI will participate in Tech to Teaching program that inspires students to choose a teaching career.”

Example 2:

“If successful, the results of this research will significantly advance knowledge and understanding in the general area of tunable and adaptive nonlinear metamaterials. This understanding will be important for the development of innovative devices for use in communication systems (mobile phones, GPS units, etc.), noise isolation, energy redirection, and acoustic filters, logic ports and switches. Advances from the research topics will be disseminated widely through academic courses on wave mechanics at Georgia Tech and in undergraduate research opportunities. Broadening of participation will be achieved by specifically working with underrepresented students through ongoing programs available at Georgia Tech. In addition, educational laboratory activities and classroom modules, developed in partnership with the GIFT program at Georgia Tech, will expose high school and middle school underrepresented students to basic results of the research and to underlying wave mechanics principles.”

Examples courtesy of Georgia Tech

For more on this subject, you can review a list of Representative Activities published by the National Science Foundation or this Dear Colleague Letter from NSF that is specific to the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

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