01/17/23 – Virtual Office Hours Recap: Research Capacity Programs for Biological Collections and Biological Field Stations

In case you missed our recent virtual office hours (VOH) on Infrastructure Capacity for Biological Research (Capacity) programs, here are a few of the questions that were asked with answers from NSF Program Directors. We discussed primarily the programmatic areas of Biological Collections and Biological Field Stations and Marine Laboratories.

The slides from this Office Hour are available here:

Capacity: Biological Collections

Q: Does NSF require a specimen management statement that is separate from the data management statement?

A: It is not a separate document, but the new core program solicitations in the Divisions of Environmental Biology, Integrative Organismal Systems, and Molecular and Cellular Biology include the following requirement:

For projects that involve collecting or generating specimens (e.g., organisms, parts of organisms, fossils including trace fossils, microbial isolates, etc), the Data Management Plan must include a description of how the specimens and associated data will be accessioned into and maintained in an established biological collection.

Reviewers and program directors will assess Data Management Plans, including if an appropriate amount of money is budgeted towards achieving them.

Q: Is there interest in digitizing collections that are limited in biodiversity but rich in data about a specific taxonomic group? 

A: We are interested in proposals that increase access to data that will benefit the broader research community. Reviewers are best positioned to evaluate the importance of a collection, so making the case for the potential of that collection is essential in every proposal. The breadth of diversity in the data is of less importance than is the potential of those data with regards to supporting a broad, diverse community of researchers.

Q: Our collection has federally owned specimens mixed in with those owned by us. It is not practical to exclude them from collection projects. Would our collection be ineligible for support?  

A: Federal collections that are managed directly by a federal agency or as separate collections are ineligible and should be excluded. However, for mixed collections it is often not cost-effective or practical to separate them based on ownership with regards to a digitization project. This program supports an expansion of data use across the broader research community and so goes beyond ownership. Thus, if it makes sense to digitize a collection from the perspective of advancing research, and the collection is mixed, then it is appropriate to include in a proposal.

Q. Would this program support the transfer of ownership of an orphan collection located outside of the United States to a U.S.-based Museum? 

A: The solicitation does not prohibit the transfer of ownership, and we have supported transfer of ownership of a living stock collection from a foreign country in the past. The key aspect, though, is if the transfer of ownership is going to benefit researchers making use of the collection. If included in a proposal, documentation of agreement between all parties and adherence to all relevant laws, agreements, or treaties pertaining to the transfer of biological materials is required before that proposal could be supported.

Q. Is equipment, such as museum cabinets, subject to indirect (facilities and administration) costs?

A: Equipment, such as museum cabinets, does not garner indirect costs.

Capacity: Biological Field Stations and Marine Laboratories

Q: When applying for support for infrastructure, such as the acquisition of liquid nitrogen storage for frozen tissue collection, do we need to submit a letter demonstrating that commitment from our institution? 

A: We do not accept letters of commitment from institutions. The proposal should include a clear statement of institutional capacity in the project description and facilities document. Institutions, rather than individuals, are funded and thus when the Authorized Organization Representative (AOR) for an institution signs off on the submission for the proposal, they are committing the institution to providing the facilities and resources described in that proposal. 

Q: Can improvement grants include 1) the cost of supplies and 2) the labor for improvements?

We do not typically provide funds for consumables or technicians required for longer-term operations; that is the responsibility of the institution. Generally, funding cannot go towards supporting people to do the job they’re already hired for. However, new instrumentation may have a commissioning process that requires testing and break-in in the first few years. Personnel time directly associated with in-house construction can certainly be part of the budget. Thus, supplies or support for technicians or other employees essential for commission or construction could be allowed if well-justified in the proposal. We recommend browsing through previous awards to this program to gain a better sense of the variety of ways we have funded field stations.

Q: Are there restrictions on funding to purchase vehicles? 

The Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG) provides guidance to submitters regarding funding categories. Vehicles that fall under the category of “general purpose equipment” are not typically eligible for NSF support. However, vehicles and vessels that are dedicated to, or modified specifically for, research use (e.g., diving platforms, towing vehicles) can be eligible for funding. We recommend speaking with a program officer before submitting a budget that includes a vehicle.

Q: If the existing field station is on U.S. Forest Service property, but is maintained through university funding, would the station be eligible for an improvement grant? 

We have provided capital improvement support for field stations that are on federal lands, including U.S. Forest Service land. If there is evidence that the awardee institution has the authority to improve the property on an ongoing basis, whether through an MOU, lease agreement, permit or other documented arrangement, then the proposal is eligible for funding.

Q: How accurate must quotes be for any proposed infrastructure improvement? 

A: We encourage submitters to include the most accurate quote information possible but understand that some PIs may be limited to rough estimates at the time of submission. We rely on our panel reviewers to help evaluate the potential science impact of your proposal as well as the estimated budget for the improvements. For proposals that are rated highly, we often do a follow-up with PIs for verification of the quotes. This is important; after an award is made, NSF has limited capacity to increase funding to account for cost overruns.

Q: When submitting requests for infrastructure funding we are asked to support the broader research community. However, at many field stations we are in the process of rethinking what this research should include and who is or could be part of our research community. How defined should a research direction be in a proposal? 

The process of bringing in new stakeholders and users can be part of a proposal if it were submitted as planning proposal. In this case, the research direction might be less defined since that is an outcome of the proposal. However, both historical research communities and potential new communities can form the basis for an argument for funding if tied to the infrastructure request.

General

Q: Is there a cap on the requested funds in a proposal? Can multiple elements be funded in a single proposal?

A: There is no defined cap on proposal budgets in this solicitation. However, the program budget, an estimated $18-20 million, must be allocated to support the numerous program and NSF-wide goals, such broadening participation in science, and funding projects across the United States. A proposal that uses up a large portion of allocated funds would therefore have a more difficult time in review process. We advise that all proposals, regardless of requested budget, have a clear focus and realistic representation of costs for what is needed. Thus, focusing on a single element or a few well-integrated elements of infrastructure in a proposal will lead to greater success than including a longer list of less related needs. Negotiations on budgets in this program are rare and would take place as part of a reduction in scope.

Q: Capacity grants are designed to support research efforts through infrastructure funding. Does the funding source for those other research efforts impact eligibility or ranking for capacity grants?

A: Awards for support of a collection or field station are often likely to support research across and beyond the scope of the BIO directorate. The funding sources of the research activities impacted by a proposal do not impact eligibility. However, that the program is designed to research an area NSF does, or would, fund does matter. Reviewers are directed to evaluate the scope of impact funding would likely have on research that falls within NSF priorities. For this reason, a proposal that is clearly supporting many different existing or future NSF-funded projects would rank higher than an equivalent program that primarily supports research that is or would be funded from other institutions. However, all competitive proposals are considered for funding if they serve the broader interests of science.

Q: Is there a unique template or guidelines for length for a planning grant submission? 

A: There is no unique template or guideline for planning grants. Typically, they are shorter than the maximum limit of 15 pages, but there is not requirement that they are shorter. It is essential to provide enough information that reviewers and program directors have a sense of the planned research directions, stakeholders or participants, process that will be followed, and products that will be developed through this process.

Q: When is the next webinar for infrastructure programs in DBI? 

We announce our webinars six months in advance; our webinar schedule can be found at https://dbiblog.nsfbio.com/. However, all interested PIs are encouraged to reach out at any time to Program Directors by email (DBI-RR-Cluster@nsf.gov) to discuss our programs or request additional information.