An alternative title for this post is:
Now I've Seen Everything (in a review)
One possible example of a broader impact that can be mentioned in an NSF proposal is the extent to which the proposed research activities broaden the participation of underrepresented groups.
A topic of past discussion in this blog is whether to list yourself as a broader impact, if you are the PI or co-PI and are a member of an underrepresented group.
I don't mention myself as a broader impact in proposals anymore. At an earlier stage of my career, on at least one occasion I included myself, as one item in a list of BIs, and I got slammed in review for it by someone who took it as evidence that I was using my gender as an unfair tactic to get a grant. Never mind that I wasn't telling anyone anything they didn't already know (i.e., that I am female) and that it was therefore not a particularly clever tactic; including this factoid as an item in a list enraged at least one reviewer.
I stopped listing myself, not because I was afraid of getting such a negative reaction again, but because I changed my approach to the BI section. I used to adopt a comprehensive approach of noting all BIs relevant to my proposal. Now I just focus on what I think are the most important BI activities or elements of my proposed research.
Also, I got older, and it's not clear whether a tenured female professor fits the BI goal of broadening participation etc. anyway, except in a rather indirect way.
That brings us up to the present situation:
In one review of one of my recent proposals, I was thanked by one reviewer for not mentioning myself or other women involved in the project as a broader impact. The reviewer was very happy to see that my proposal was therefore not obviously biased against men.
OK... you're welcome.. but you know what? Even if I wrote in the BI section that the proposed research involved female investigators and therefore in some way helped broaden the participation of an underrepresented group, this does not demonstrate bias against men. It would be stating something that is part fact (I am the female PI whether I mention it in the proposal text or not) and part opinion (my involvement in research broadens the participation etc.); no men were excluded or oppressed to produce this proposal.
I think the reviewer was mostly expressing relief at not having to read what is apparently an annoying/enraging statement about the underrepresentation of women in Science; clearly the reviewer has seen such statements in other proposals. The reviewer comment was meant as a compliment, but I think the comment was inappropriate in a review and makes me wonder at the reviewer's comments in proposals by women who do mention that they are a broader impact. If I had mentioned in the proposal that women investigators were involved in the research, would the reviewer have rated this proposal lower, just because this obvious fact was explicitly stated?
I don't know, but, at the very least, thanking a woman PI in a proposal review for not mentioning that she is female is kind of weird.
8 months ago