Realizing Societal Benefit from Academic Research: Analysis of the National Science Foundation's Broader Impacts Criterion

Social Epistemology 23 (3):199-219 (2011)
Abstract
The National Science Foundation (NSF) evaluates grant proposals based on two criteria: intellectual merit and broader impacts. NSF gives applicants wide latitude to choose among a number of broader impacts, which include both benefits for the scientific community and benefits for society. This paper considers whether including potential societal benefits in the Broader Impacts Criterion leads to enhanced benefits for society. One prerequisite for realizing societal benefit is to transfer research results to potential users in a meaningful format. To determine whether researchers who discuss broader impacts for society are more likely to engage in broad dissemination activities beyond the scientific publication, I analysed proposed broader impacts statements from recent award abstracts. Although 43% of researchers discussed potential benefits for society, those researchers were no more likely to propose dissemination of results to potential users than researchers who only discussed broader impacts for science. These findings suggest that considering potential societal benefit as a broader impact may not lead to more actual societal benefits and that many potentially useful results may not be disseminated beyond the scientific community. I conclude with policy recommendations that could increase the likelihood of realizing potential societal benefits from academic research
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