Enhance NSF MRI applications with these insights

A man crouches behind a little boy, showing him how to use the fishing pole he holds.

Like teaching the next generation to fish, training the next generation of instrument users and developers is critical to sustainability.

The Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program offered by the National Science Foundation (NSF) “provides organizations with opportunities to acquire major instrumentation that supports the research and research training goals of the organization that may be used by other researchers regionally or nationally.”

MRI is a limited submission opportunity, meaning that the number of proposals submitted from a given institution is limited by the NSF. To determine which proposals Miami University will submit each year, OARS conducts a review of preliminary proposals. For the 2018 MRI competition, the deadline to submit to the NSF is January 10, 2018, but the deadline to submit preliminary proposals to OARS is October 2, 2017. With that date coming up, this seems like a good time to share some insights about the program.

INSIGHT 1: Get the basics right.

Be sure to read the solicitation carefully, even if you’ve applied in (multiple) previous years. Solicitations for longstanding programs do change from time to time, so it’s important to read each new solicitation. In fact, the institutional submission limits changed with the 2018 solicitation. Rather than submission limits being based on acquisition or development, they are now based on amount of funding requested. Institutions may submit up to two proposals with funding requests between $100,000 and $999,999 and one proposal with a funding request between $1 million and $4 million, inclusive.

At the NSF Spring Grants Conference held Louisville in June, Randy Phelps, the NSF staff associate who coordinates the MRI program, suggested the following points are especially important to note:

  • The program funds equipment for shared use, so the proposal must demonstrate use by at least two personnel. There can be up to four co-PIs on the project, but there can be more users than PIs.
  • The project period can be up to three years because the program will fund operation and maintenance of the instrument for that length of time.
  • Make sure that what you’re requesting is eligible for funding under the MRI program. In general, the program will not fund anything that can be re-purposed for non-scientific use after the end of the project period. Specific details about what can and cannot be requested can be found in the NSF MRI FAQs.
  • Remember that voluntary committed cost share is prohibited. While MRI requires that institutions share 30% of the total project costs, NSF does not allow institutions to volunteer to share costs over and above that mark. This prohibition extends to reduced indirect cost rates.

Mike Robinson and Paul James, members of Miami University’s Department of Biology, attribute much of their success in securing an award in the 2017 MRI competition to their recognition of Phelps’ first point.

“What was key for us was that we hit a broad swath of people and types of research,” Robinson says. “We included faculty working in developmental biology, physiology, ecology, physics, and engineering.”

Their proposal included Robinson as PI, four co-PIs (including James), and seven additional equipment users as senior personnel.

INSIGHT 2: Tell a story that resonates with reviewers.

“Get the instrument and they will come” is not a compelling story, Phelps said. Instead, he urged proposers to demonstrate that the science is driving the request for the instrument. There’s lots of advice out there (here, here, and here, for instance) for scientists who want to become more persuasive storytellers. In addition, Phelps offered this specific advice for MRI proposals:

  • Make sure that the format of your proposal emphasizes the science, rather than the instrument.
  • Consider grouping users into categories by type of use and organizing the proposal around these categories. Break down the use of the instrument by group, identifying the percentage of total use each group will account for. Demonstrate, for example, that Group A’s use will account for 60% of total use; Group B’s use will account for 20% of total use, Group C’s use will account for 15%, and Group D’s will account for 5%. Then explain how each group’s use correlates to a corresponding percentage of the instrument costs. In this example, that means that since Group A will account for 60% of the instrument’s total, the proposal should show that 60% of the instrument costs derive from the capabilities Group A users require.
  • Show that the instrument will be used — a lot. The less downtime you can project, the better your proposal will fare in review.

Robinson recalls that when he and James first decided to write the MRI proposal, conversations with colleagues were less than encouraging.

“I can’t tell you the number of people that told me there was no way we were going to get this award,” Robinson says. “We had all of these things going against us: We were going to have to work on the proposal over the holidays; neither Paul nor I had used the equipment; we were told we were going to have to have preliminary data on that very piece of equipment, which we certainly didn’t have; and they kept talking about broader impacts and how there was no way we could satisfy the NSF with that.”

But Robinson and James forged ahead, with the help of an external consultant provided by OARS.  Consistent with Phelps’ second recommendation, they organized their proposal around three types of use, or “themes.” Each of these themes incorporated the work of at least two of the proposal’s co-PIs or senior personnel, and Robinson and James worked hard to weave each researcher’s individual descriptions of their work into a coherent overall narrative. The end result was a story that clearly resonated with the program’s reviewers.

INSIGHT 3: Research training is a critical component of an MRI proposal.

Give a someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime. That old adage encapsulates NSF’s perspective on research instrumentation. Not only do they want to get instruments in labs to facilitate research today, but they also want to help create the next generation of instrument users and/or instrument developers.

“If a proposal does not describe research training — particularly for underrepresented groups — it will fail during review,” Phelps said.

The research training plan must be concrete, feasible, and able to be evaluated. Outreach — especially to K-12 students — is not fundable through MRI, and simply providing undergraduate training is not enough.

“All proposals will include [undergraduate training],” Phelps said. “What makes your institution stand out?”

Robinson and James’ proposal made clear that all of the undergraduate and graduate students work in the labs of the project’s PI, co-PIs, and key personnel will receive training to use the fluorescence activated cell sorter (FACS) system that will be acquired with the NSF grant funds. Professional technicians working in the labs and in Miami’s Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics (CBFG), where the FACS system will be housed, will also receive training. In addition, Robinson says his team “took the broader impact stuff very, very seriously.” So while there are no funds in the grant to support outreach activities, they will nevertheless incorporate FACS-related material into a range of activities that will be shared with K-12 students through STEM outreach initiatives of Miami’s Hefner Museum of Natural History.

INSIGHT 4: Treat the required Management Plan with as much care as you do the rest of the proposal.

Phelps pointed out that good scientists are not always good managers. So, he said, it’s important to reassure the reviewers that the project team is capable of competently managing the acquisition of the instrument, the operations of the instrument, the scheduling of user time, and the strategic use of downtime. For Robinson and James, these issues were resolved by involving the CBFG, whose staff has an extensive track record of managing instruments and coordinating user time.

INSIGHT 5: You probably need a Data Management Plan, even if you think you don’t.

It may not seem intuitive, but Phelps said he considers a Data Management Plan crucial for most MRI proposals. Acquisition is the perfect time to think about how to enable metadata and manage storage of the data generated by use of the instrument. If you can demonstrate a plan for facilitating the dissemination and sharing the results of all the research that will eventually be conducted using the instrument, you give the reviewers one more reason to fund your proposal.


Updated November 16, 2017, to include information about the 2018 NSF MRI solicitation.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos by Kemberly Groue, U.S. Air Force, public domain.

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