I have been looking all over for more information on what exactly should go in the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact sections of NSF proposals. So far I have found two decent explanations, one by the University of Arizona and another by the Director of Research, The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University.

The first says that Intellectual Merit is about original contributions the research proposed will make, while the second claims a similar thing. However, for Broader Impact it seems they are a little different. Unfortunately though i feel neither goes as in depth on the explanation of both as I would have liked. So I am still having difficulty understanding what they are asking for.

If someone could give me a more concise explanation of each section, that would be greatly appreciated.

If that is too much trouble a couple of simpler questions to answer for me are:

  1. Is the Intellectual Merit section only about the goals of the current research or also future research that may come as a result of the current research?
  2. Is the Broader Impact section supposed to be about impact in the scientific community, society, or both?
  • 2
    My natural question would be if there is any instruction material from the NSF available. For comparable European grants, there normally is. Sep 8, 2019 at 18:48
  • 1
    Hey @lighthousekeeper it does, here are the two bullet points the guidlines give about these two sections Intellectual Merit: The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge; and Broader Impacts: The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. Its helpful but not the most concise explanation.
    – Cavenfish
    Sep 8, 2019 at 18:56
  • My gut feeling suggests that a broad description like that also supports also a broader spectrum of possible responses. I would focus on the areas where you can make the best arguments. But I don't have any NSF experience. Sep 8, 2019 at 19:15
  • Your second link includes several links to examples directly from NSF of the type @lighthousekeeper suggested you look for.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 8, 2019 at 20:45
  • There's a lot of great information in the links at this website: people.math.gatech.edu/~dmargalit7/tsr/grants.shtml
    – user109454
    Sep 8, 2019 at 20:50

1 Answer 1


I suggest the first port of call for an explanation is with the NSF itself. For Broader Impacts, I would start with this Dear Colleague letter on the Broader Impacts Review Criterion.

The NSF Grant Proposal Guide uses a series of questions to illustrate the Broader Impacts criterion: “How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning? How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)? To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships? Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society? “

These questions help to assess the potential of the proposed activity - beyond the research, per se - to benefit the Nation. Thus, the Broader Impacts criterion speaks directly to the mission of the National Science Foundation, “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense.” (NSF Act of 1950).

For even more recent descriptions, review Chapter II - Proposal Preparation Instructions of the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide, Which includes these parts:

Intellectual Merit

The Project Description must contain, as a separate section within the narrative, a section labeled "Intellectual Merit". The Project Description should provide a clear statement of the work to be undertaken and must include the objectives for the period of the proposed work and expected significance; the relationship of this work to the present state of knowledge in the field, as well as to work in progress by the PI under other support.

The Project Description should outline the general plan of work, including the broad design of activities to be undertaken, and, where appropriate, provide a clear description of experimental methods and procedures. Proposers should address what they want to do, why they want to do it, how they plan to do it, how they will know if they succeed, and what benefits could accrue if the project is successful. The project activities may be based on previously established and/or innovative methods and approaches, but in either case must be well justified. These issues apply to both the technical aspects of the proposal and the way in which the project may make broader contributions.

Broader Impact

The Project Description also must contain, as a separate section within the narrative, a section labeled "Broader Impacts". This section should provide a discussion of the broader impacts of the proposed activities. Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to the achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the U.S.; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.

The Short Version

I think about it like this: intellectual merit is the "contribution" part of a potential publication or set of publications; broader impact is what administrators would like you to talk with the media team about so they can make a press release about how their people/funding are/is making the world a better place. In other words, the merit is the work itself and its findings, and the impact is what the effect would be on some defined portion of society if you succeeded in doing what you propose.

Both parts should be about what you are specifically proposing to do now (the thing the proposal will fund, and preferably with early results to support some claims), and should be deeply and believably connected to the research you are proposing. The farther out and more vaguely connected it is, the less compelling and believable it is likely to sound. "These findings could be built on to eventually obtain world peace in the next millennia" is not very compelling, for example.

Grandiose claims of widespread benefits must trade-off against believability and practicality. The more people you could help, in science and outside in general society, the better - but you should make the link very explicit and clear.

My source for the above is being involved with a few proposals in preparation, extensive reading of NSF program materials, preparing and succeeding with a fellowship proposal, and being involved with a few grant processes that were modeled off NSF criteria in the general area of technology/engineering/psychology. If you see any disagreement between my opinion and official NSF program materials, believe the NSF materials over me.

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