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Research impact plans ‘should reflect researcher’s identity’

Image: Craig Nicholson for Research Professional News

SRAI 2022: Plans for impact in funding proposals should evolve with researcher’s career, event hears

Plans for how research will achieve broader impact beyond advancing knowledge should reflect the interests of the principal investigator, an international meeting of research administrators has heard.

In the United States, broader impact is one of two main criteria considered by the National Science Foundation when evaluating research funding proposals, alongside the intellectual merit of the research. It can be defined as activities that provide education, benefit society, broaden participation in research, disseminate knowledge or enhance infrastructure.

But setting out broader impact plans tends to cause difficulties for researchers, Zakiya S Wilson-Kennedy, a professor of chemistry education and associate dean for diversity and inclusion at Louisiana State University, said at the Society of Research Administrators International annual meeting in Las Vegas on 3 November.

‘Impact should be something researchers enjoy’

For this reason, impact plans for a funding proposal should be selected in part based on the PI’s level of interest in the activities involved, Wilson-Kennedy (pictured) recommended.

Ideally, impact activities such as producing training materials, working with schools or partnering with a museum to engage the public should also be selected so that they can build up over the course of the PI’s career and be “taken from level to level”, she said.

When choosing impact plans, the PI should be considered as “a whole person who has interests outside their research”, said Megan Reitmann, a project manager and training coordinator at Iowa State University and the NSF-funded organisation Advancing Research Impacts in Society.

Impact should be “something the researcher is going to do anyway and enjoy, with or without funding, but can do more of with funding”, Reitmann added.

Funds, funds, funds

It is important to request funding for impact activities as part of the proposal, Wilson-Kennedy stressed. “Include funds, include funds, include funds,” she implored. “This is not something that PIs should think just happens miraculously.”

Other factors to consider when choosing impact activities include the level of effort needed to deliver them and the extent to which the activities can be sustained beyond the life of the grant, Wilson-Kennedy said.

Impact activities could reflect local, regional or national needs, and should scale with the project as reflected in the size and duration of the grant, she suggested.

Failing to give sufficient emphasis to broader impact is an easy way for evaluators to decide not to fund a proposal despite its academic merit, Reitmann warned.