Since it was suggested on my last NSF proposal question, I thought I might also tap the collective brain on the question of broader impacts and synergistic activities. These concepts are still slightly unclear to me, though I understand them a lot better than I did when I wrote this blog post (which actually resulted in some pretty good advice). So let me ask:

What are some examples of synergistic activites and activities with "broader impacts" that many of us are doing, but haven't thought of to list in our NSF proposals? What are some ones we probably should be doing, but maybe aren't?

I'm particularly interested in the answers for young mathematicians. Most of the proposals I've read are from more senior people, who could point to their track record of mentoring graduate students and postdocs, or things like editing journals, in a way someone my age really can't.

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    $\begingroup$ Editing a journal isn't a "broader impact" (is refereeing?) unless one is at an editor-in-chief kind of level. Here are some things to say (best if one has done them before submission): give talks to high school student summer programs, run weekly series of math talks for undergrads, mentor high school students on research projects, volunteer to judge math projects at local fairs, run seminars on hard-to-learn topics for which participants are required to write up lecture notes that get posted on a webpage...enough for now; gotta get back to writing my broader impact statement. :) $\endgroup$ – BCnrd Sep 18 '10 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Charles: if you're the administrator of MO it definitely is, but for the rest of us I think that at the very least it is not something which would stand on its own. To write about being on MO as an activity would be like writing that you regularly edit Wikipedia math articles. Some people will just roll their eyes at that stuff. However, it probably would fit in well as part of a longer list of math-related activities, and you probably should briefly explain what MO is (with a URL). $\endgroup$ – KConrad Sep 18 '10 at 23:58
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    $\begingroup$ Charles: Also, it would only work if you are writing on this site under your own name, or something quite close to it. To write in a proposal "I am donkeykong on Math Overflow" would look bizarre. $\endgroup$ – KConrad Sep 19 '10 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Ben : It's probably worth mentioning that putting wikipedia editing in there did not prevent you from getting the NSF postdoc =). $\endgroup$ – Andy Putman Sep 19 '10 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ It's true. Neither did writing blog posts with the title "Synergistic what?" $\endgroup$ – Ben Webster Sep 19 '10 at 2:31

Some possible synergistic activities, which are within reach of many people:

Mentoring members of minority or underrepresented groups. (At any level: undergrad --- e.g. an independent study or senior thesis student, grad, or post-doc.)

Giving talks/lecture series/mini-courses at events aimed at undergrads or grad students.

Organizing events aimed at undergrad or grad students.

Creating/maintaining wiki's on various topics.

Helping train your institution's Putnam team.

I think of all of these could count as broader impact as well.

For a post-doc or junior faculty member, advising students in independent study, and/or advising senior theses, are among one of the easiest (in the sense of being available as an option) broader impact/synergistic activities that one can undertake.

I think that online participation can count as broader impact, but it should probably be substantial enough to be noteworthy. For example, maintaining a prominent blog would certainly count (I would think both as a synergistic activity and as broader impact).

Organizing a workshop/conference/etc. could count as broader impact. I've known instances of fairly young people organizing (very successful!) workshops (e.g. at AIM). More commonly, as a junior person, you could be part of the organizing committee along with more senior people. There are conferences being organized all the times, at AIM, MSRI, Banff, etc., so there are definitely opportunities available here.

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    $\begingroup$ As far as organizing workshops/conferences, you forgot to mention special sessions at AMS meetings. Those are probably the easiest for young people to organize (for example, you don't have to deal with financial issues). $\endgroup$ – Andy Putman Sep 19 '10 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ Dear Andy, Thanks --- that's a very good suggestion. (Note also that AIM and Banff are set up so that the organizers don't have to worry about financial issues, accommodation of participants, and so on.) $\endgroup$ – Emerton Sep 19 '10 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ My program director characterised broader impacts as "activities that affect people"; I found this useful for deciding what could count as broader impact, and I think all of the examples listed above satisfy this test. $\endgroup$ – Anne Thomas Sep 20 '10 at 5:20

The Computer Science Directorate of NSF (CISE) held a "Broader Impacts for Research and Discovery Summit" this past June. A summary of the meeting appeared in Computing Research News (p.6), including this list of examples, only one of which is specific to computer science:

  • Develop educational materials for elementary, high-school and undergraduate students.
  • Involve high-school and undergraduate students in research where appropriate.
  • Create or participate in existing effective mentoring programs.
  • Develop, maintain and operate a shared research infrastructure.
  • Establish international, industrial or government collaborations.
  • Form start-up companies.
  • Present research results to non-scientific audiences from policy-makers to average citizens.
  • Give presentations about the field to the public to foster life-long learning.
  • Develop exhibits in partnership with museums.
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Would bringing visitors to one's university (to give talks and collaborate on research) be considered a synergistic activity? I think one could certainly make a case that it is, and I'm curious what others on this forum think. My last NSF proposal was submitted before I'd invited any visitors, but I might consider listing this sort of activity the next time around (which is frighteningly soon...). In my opinion, bringing in speakers is quite important as a synergistic activity, especially when the speakers give talks that are geared towards a broader audience than research experts in one area. It is excellent, for example, as a way to expose graduate students to current research.

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    $\begingroup$ More relevantly, do NSF program directors who will evaluate your grant proposal consider this to be a synergistic activity? There is an easy way to find out: ask them directly via email! $\endgroup$ – Victor Protsak Sep 19 '10 at 23:12
  • $\begingroup$ That's a very good suggestion, Victor! I will do so, and share the response I get here. Of course there are many program directors, so anyone else who looks into the question can do the same. $\endgroup$ – Dan Ramras Sep 19 '10 at 23:18

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