7/19/22 – Virtual Office Hours Recap: Instrumentation in BIO

On July 19, 2022, program officers from the Division of Biological Infrastructure (DBI) within the Directorate for Biological Sciences (BIO) at the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) held a virtual office hour session discussing various instrumentation programs supported by BIO, including  Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) and Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure-1 and 2 (Mid-scale RI-1 and Mid-scale RI-2).

The staff provided a brief overview of the instrumentation programs and were available for questions.

The slides from this Office Hour are available here:

When do you expect to release the new program announcement for MRI?

I expect it should come out mid-fall. However, this should not stop you from starting to work on a proposal. Most institutions require you to go through an internal competition to be even considered as one of the proposals to be submitted. Get started sooner rather than later.

When are MRI awardees typically announced? When are the 2022 MRI awardees going to be announced? 

Typically, you will receive an official notification. I am going to go with how BIO does it. It’s a complex review process and final recommendation process because it goes through reviews and is managed by both biological sciences directed in our division, but also in the Office of Integrated Activities, where the funds come from. The review process and concurrence of the recommendation are fairly lengthy. Because of that in general, I would say that if you are going to receive an award, you should hear something by the end of August.

Is there a good time we can schedule a Zoom call about a MRI Track 1 Acquisition Proposal (one-page summary)? Our collaborators and I have been unsuccessful in getting feedback on a project summary since the past couple of months on the generic email. But from office hours and ppt today, it is also clear that we haven’t being specifically sending our emails to you or any of the POs that participated today. 

Yes, you should contact me directly, so if you’re really interested in an MRI proposal and discussing one page summary (Rob Fleischmann, DBI, rfleisch@nsf.gov). Generally, I try to get back to you within 48 hours and schedule a meeting. If you don’t hear from me, within a day or two, don’t be shy about contacting me again.

I heard Rob say that service contracts are supported by the MRI program for the award period.  Is this true for all divisions? 

It should be. The general policy for the MRI program is that we support service contracts for the award period. Generally, when you purchase an instrument in the simplest cleanest transaction, they generally offer the first-year service contract as part of your package. What we then do is encourage you to include one in your project cost, the cost of the service contracts in the subsequent years. It could be years two or three. We do encourage you to put that in as part of the instrumentation cost and not a separate line item, because of the complexities of your institution taking indirect costs off of that. 

How do we get proposal reviews from a 2021 MRI submission if we have not already received them? 

I’m going to assume that, when you say 2021 submission you submitted it probably in January of 2020 and you’re still thinking well I submitted it pretty much in 2021 its been a long time since I submitted it. As I said, it’s a lengthy review process and we spend time depending on where we are trying to push out awards and then going back to the declines. 

Everything should pretty much be closed out by the end of August, so if you haven’t heard anything yet, it really doesn’t give you a clue as to whether you’re getting a decline or an award. I would suggest if you submitted to BIO, that you reach out to me with more details or just send me an email and we can discuss further (Rob Fleischmann, DBI, rfleisch@nsf.gov). If you haven’t received your reviews and truly submitted it in January of 2021 and don’t have an answer for that, again if it was to BIO, reach out to me and we can figure out what’s going on. 

Question about MRI. Is it possible to request several pieces of equipment under the same aim as long as the total budget is <$4M? For example, dynamic light scattering and static light scattering for protein characterization (size, and molecular weight of protein). 

The simplest intent of the MRI program is to acquire a single instrument that provides a basically a single type of data. If instruments need to be chained together and, for example, you are applying to get a scanning electron microscope and you needed a sputter coater to work with that, as part of a pipeline, that would be acceptable. If you are applying to get a DNA sequencer and you need an automated library prep instrumentation that would be acceptable. But two pieces or more of equipment that do independent experiments and provide independent data is not acceptable.

Can a transmission electron microscope purchased by an MRI grant ever be used for imaging clinical samples? 

The biological sciences Directorate at the National Science Foundation does not support human health related research. We support basic science, and so the instrumentation and the research projects that you’ll describe in your proposal should be basic science related. So, you can be studying cancer biology, but if you’re exploring some basic mechanisms of cellular biology that’s fine with us. But if you’re interested in doing diagnostics or drug development or things that are just basically targeted at human disease that’s not going to be acceptable. You have the instrument in hand, and hopefully you got that award because you put forth enough basic science that we found intriguing and it was a well developed proposal, etc.  I can’t stop what goes into the instrument okay so nobody’s going to be auditing how the instrument is used. That said, you do provide us with annual reports. For each year that you have the instrument and we’re very interested in the science that you’re doing and how it’s progressing so there should be certainly enough science, with the original intent that was used for the basic science that you’re doing.

Can an instrument purchased through an MRI award be used for clinical samples after the award period has ended?

Once the award period is over, it’s not our instrument anymore it’s yours. The title to the acquisition vests with the awarding institution, and we can exercise their right of Reversion up to 120 days after the end of the award but if it’s not done by then, it’s yours to do with as you need, and spreading out your support base could help make your operations more sustainable.

I am not sure if an MRI I am planning fits BIO or MPS better. How should I figure it out?

Contact me and we can talk it over (Rob Fleischmann, DBI, rfleisch@nsf.gov). You can send me a one pager and I can give you some guidance on that for where the best fit is.

Can you tell us more about including personnel support (i.e. a dedicated technician) in an MRI proposal?

Our personnel support and MRI award is very limited.  However, you can request support for a technician that should be justified by the activities of that technician. We will only support their time that’s related to upkeep and maintenance and calibration of the instrument.  If you’re thinking 50% time that’s probably not likely to be supported.  It’s probably something more on the order of 20% time for a technician, but it must be well justified in your narrative and the narrative should be part of your budget justification.

Are industrial collaborations supported by the MRI program? For example, we have a current model where a local company supports undergrads to do summer research, and we provide them with data from an XPS  instrument (a very old one), hold joint meetings, etc. We’d like to continue this, and a new XPS would enhance this relationship.  In this case is a letter of support appropriate? Or does this fit into the broader impacts? This is a planned DMR submission. I should note that I am planning also internal users at my institution, and from other schools in the region. 

It’s not so much that it’s an industrial collaboration, it’s a collaboration where you’re enabling students research. Sounds like students do research in coordination with a company. We wouldn’t provide any money to support that, but it would probably be part of your broader impacts and something that would be kind of creative and different so that would actually not be bad. In terms of letter of support if you read the solicitation, letters of support would be fine. Letters of support follow a very strict form and format within the supplementary documents for an MRI submission. It’s basically a form letter, with no details. Therefore, the activity should be described in the project description and a letter of support following the format would be welcome in the supplementary documents.

Is there a place to find who the MRI Program contact for a different program is (like Geosciences, for example)? I’m not seeing it on the MRI website.

The contacts for the other directorates are on the MRI site if you hit the expand button. I would suggest you look at this list. You could look at the solicitation, but that may very well not be up to date.  If you are having problems with that, you should probably reach out to me (Rob Fleischmann, DBI, rfleisch@nsf.gov), and I can reach out to the coordinator in OIA and get you the name of that person or individual.

Is it okay to discuss impacts not just for the for people at the home institution, but for other schools from the region as well? 

That’s great, fantastic, actually.  We encourage you let us know more about how your instrument impacts other regional institutions. That is viewed  as a plus.

Will there be a Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB) office hour in the near future? 

Recaps of the recent PRFB Virtual Office Hours can be found at the following URLs:

DEB: Mon. Sept. 12, 1 pm: https://debblog.nsfbio.com/office-hours/
MCB: Wed. Sept. 14, 2 pm: https://mcbblog.nsfbio.com/office-hours/
IOS: Thur. Sept. 15, 1 pm: https://iosblog.nsfbio.com/virtual-office-hours/
DBI: Tue. Sept. 20, 3 pm: https://dbiblog.nsfbio.com/dbi-virtual-office-hours/

Hi, if I am a masters student and interested in applying to a PhD program and would like NSF to fund my research, how would I apply? 

If you’re in your first year of your master’s degree, you are eligible to apply to the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP).  And then there is also the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program, but that’s usually applies to an institution that already has an NRT award. You can find recaps of recent Office Hours on the GRFP here and on NRT and other training programs here.

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