Solicit and Acquire: NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation Program

October 20, 2015

Taken directly from the National Science Foundation (NSF) solicitation:

“The Major Research Instrumentation Program (MRI) serves to increase access to shared scientific and engineering instruments for research and research training in the nation’s institutions of higher education, not-for-profit museums, science centers and scientific/engineering research organizations. The Program provides organizations with opportunities to acquire major instrumentation that supports the research and research training goals of the organization and that may be used by other researchers regionally or nationally.”

In other words, if you and your research team have always needed to purchase or build a piece of equipment, but have never had the funds for it, then the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s MRI may be for you.

However, this is a limited submission. Only three applications from UT Dallas may be submitted to the National Science Foundation, which means your first step to applying for this solicitation is to write a Letter of Intent (LOI) and email it to either Beth Keithly or Alexandra Ferraris by November 1, 2015.

The LOI must answer the following questions:

  • What is the project you want to propose?
  • Why is it a good project, and how does it fit the program to which you are applying?
  • Who is on your team?
  • Where is the 30% of the cost-sharing coming from? (In other words, UT Dallas must pay for 30% of the project, so where—as specific as you can be without a cost center—are those funds coming from?)

Let’s focus on the second bullet, “Why is it a good project and how does it fit?” because this should be the majority of your letter. The answer to this question will serve as your proposal’s backbone, so the sooner you have that and the stronger it is, the better. For that, you need to read the solicitation and check out the very handy program page, as well as the rest of this article.

First, this is for one piece of equipment:

The MRI funds the acquisition or development of a single, shared-use, state-of-the-art, well-integrated piece of equipment/cyberinfrastructure (hardware, software, or a combination of the two). All of those adjectives are critical to your proposal. Make sure your proposal makes it clear that:

  • You are getting one piece of equipment and not several, closely related items.
  • The equipment is going to be used by a group of researchers.
  • The equipment is superior to other existing options.
  • The equipment is well integrated with the research of the group using it.

Second, you need to pick a track:

MRIThere are two tracks: instrument acquisition (track 1) or instrument development (track 2). This matters especially because of the three proposals UT Dallas may submit, at least one must be for instrument development.

Your acquisition must not be a lease, and the equipment must arrive ready to work with little modifications.

Your development proposal must include information as to why you cannot currently purchase the type of equipment you need and how your newly developed equipment will provide an “enhanced or potentially transformative use and performance, open up new areas of research and research training, and/or have potential as a commercial product.”

And whichever track you choose, The MRI Program will NOT support proposal requests that include any of the following:

  • Construction, renovation or modernization of rooms, buildings, or research facilities. This category refers to the space where sponsored or unsponsored research activities (including research training) occur, whether “bricks-and-mortar”, mobile, or virtual.
  • Large, specialized experimental facilities that are constructed with significant amounts of common building materials using standard building techniques. Instruments in general can be decoupled from the structure or environment that contains them.
  • General purpose and supporting equipment; this category includes (but is not limited to) general purpose ancillary computers or laboratory instruments. Supporting equipment refers to basic, durable components of a research facility that are integral to its operation (e.g., fume hoods, elevators, laboratory casework, cryogen storage systems, general-purpose computational or data storage systems). It also includes supporting facilities such as vehicle charging stations.
  • Sustaining infrastructure and/or building systems.
  • General-purpose platforms or environments.
  • Instrumentation used primarily for science and engineering education courses.

Third, you need research that the NSF might support:

The NSF prides itself on supporting science and engineering research from astronomy to zoology, and while the NSF will fund MRI proposals for research not receiving NSF (or any federal money), you need to have research that might be funded by the NSF. In other words, equipment for medical education or disease-related goals will not be funded. The exception to this is bioengineering research with diagnosis or treatment-related goals achieved through engineering principles. Bioinformatics, biocomputing, and bioengineering research to aid persons with disabilities are also eligible.

Remember, when you discuss your research, it should emphasize how the state-of-the-art equipment will help you and the other researchers achieve the goals of your cutting-edge research. The equipment must always be the focus.

Fourth, you need a plan:

There are a lot of logistics you need to not only consider, but also clearly present as part of your MRI proposal. You must have a management plan present in your proposal, which includes information such as:

  • Where the instrument will go.
  • How and by whom the equipment will be operated and maintained over its lifetime.
  • The costs and expertise required to maintain the equipment.
  • Procedures for equipment use including plans for attracting and supporting new users.

Fifth, you still need Broader Impacts:

Remember, the NSF wants you to show how the instrument’s use will broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in science. Possible ways to achieving this include:

  • Collaborating with organizations on campus that already serve such groups.
  • Offering internship programs with the equipment.
  • Working with the Office of Diversity regarding partnerships with a university that serves mostly underrepresented students.

Should your letter be chosen to move forward as a proposal, be sure to work with both the Office of Research Development for a proposal outline and the Office of Sponsored Projects regarding the budget.

Remember, LOI are due via email to Beth Keithly or Alexandra Ferraris by November 1, 2015.

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