MRI Conference Call (December 9, 2002)

"This is either going to be a good year OR a really great year. If this is the first time you have submitted a proposal or do not have much time, call and talk to me first."
Joseph F. Burt, Senior Staff Associate, National Science Foundation

Competition in 2002:

700 proposals were submitted
279 were awarded (149 MRI, 130 PUI)
$81.6 million awarded
40% success rate


251 proposals were submitted
130 were awarded
$24.3 million awarded
52% success rate


449 proposals were submitted
149 were awarded
$57.3 million awarded
33% success rate


$75 million
$25 million specifically for institutions that are largely undergraduate

2003– no budget yet determined
spend at 2002 budget level

  • Both the House and Senate significantly increased the MRI budget from $94 million to $104 million

  • Logical and safe to assume a "good" or "great:" year in 2003

Questions and Answers:

  1. How many investigators are ideal?

    This is really a discipline-specific question. The shared use of instrumentation is a plus for all NSF funded programs. Need justification for each of the research projects proposed to be served. Determining co-PI or major users, this is really dependent on what discipline you are working in. You need to demonstrate full utilization of funds and instrumentation in order to succeed.

  2. How will the grant further interdisciplinary connections on campus?

    Keep in mind the nature of the grant request as well as the nature of the equipment you seek. Do not jury-rig connections in an attempt to make the proposal look good.

  3. Can the use of equipment by different users be radically different?

    Seeing multiple disciplines use the same piece of equipment often means the research is broad. You MUST have specific research that you intend to accomplish on the equipment that you can demonstrate to the NSF.

  4. How much sharing is desired between campuses?

    If your campus is isolated, then the sharing opportunities are not convenient and not efficient. Take into account your location in describing why or why not sharing is to be included, using this to support your case. The shared use of instrumentation is not the only criterion for award judgment. Of equal significance in the decision of the NSF is the diversity of your student population (particularly those students that will be utilizing the grant) and partnerships with private corporation to further enhance the significance of the awarded money. There are many ways in which your institution can demonstrate the broad impact of a grant.

  5. How to handle having PIs with differing agendas?

    Each person's agenda will be different but you MUST have some common ground or umbrella that all dynamics fall under in order to appeal to the reviewer. Discord is not going to win a grant. Differences are allowable, but emphasize a shared goal, intent or purpose among all PI's and senior personnel references in the proposal.

  6. Inclusion of major users/senior personnel/PI's?

    The difference is where you decide to list them in the proposal. You can only list four PI's and we realize this might risk stepping on the toes of a colleague, it is something you will have to figure out. We will look at all the personnel involved whether they are listed as PI's or senior personnel.

  7. What about cost-sharing?

    Do not volunteer cost-sharing. However, it is important for an institution to demonstrate a commitment to the support of the instrumentation over the life of its use. Offer some evidence of this in the proposal.

  8. Commitment from the institution for the equipment, cost for service?

    You can request operation and maintenance for the duration of the award, but often times the equipment will be usable for much longer than the grant period. Include a statement in the body of the proposal detailing the institutional commitment along with a letter of support. This is particularly imperative for smaller institutions.

  9. What about the three year period for acquisition for the equipment?

    We generally see a two-year period, three years is unusual. However, the advantage of the longer grant period is the opportunity to request operation of money over the three-year award period.

  10. What about rewiring and infrastructure improvement/renovations?

    NO bricks or mortar funding. If you receive an MRI grant, anything acquired through the grant has to be moveable.

  11. What about more general systems (ventilated cages, aquatic research vessels)? Are these eligible and how could they be strengthened?

    We have had some examples. Portable green house structures, portable research vessels–it was just a skiff, but it had instrumentation constructed as a part of the vessel, and was an integral whole. We can now define things that are portable.

  12. What about space? What else needs to be described?

    Put yourself in the reviewers chair when you consider this topic. They are going to immediately ask themselves when reading the proposal questions like: where will the institution put the equipment, how will they operate it, how will it be utilized for research purposes? These all must be considered and clearly explained in the proposal. Don't leave any room for doubt or if's in the reviewer's mind!

  13. Adding equipment to an existing laboratory?

    Adding equipment to a laboratory that was MRI funded or adding to current research is acceptable, but it is KEY to describe the next level of research that will be possible.

    *** Make sure to include a specific section discussing the institutional support for the maintenance of the equipment, for other instruments, including the facilities and if the laboratory requires modification to accommodate the new piece of equipment.

    *** Always look at it from the reviewer's perspective. Be specific about the use of the equipment and what you hope to accomplish. You want to leave the reviewer with the feeling that you know specifically what your intentions are. Do not leave them confused or scratching their heads about anything.

  14. What about computer instrumentation?

    The solicitation does not say that this is key but we encourage computer equipment to be included in all proposals. It is preferred and by doing so you might possibly set your proposal apart.

  15. Does the grant include software acquisition?

    The software is part and parcel of the equipment and it can be for the lifetime of the equipment.

  16. What about auxiliary instrumentation?

    Be sure to include in your proposal any additional, or secondary equipment that may be necessary for your research. Explain the importance or necessity of it and why it needs to be included in the grant funding.

  17. What about including a small section on teaching?

    This question is a yes and no answer. No, given this is a research program. But, the integration of teaching and research is a legitimate link that the NSF is eager to see in all programs it funds.

    Tom: I could have strengthened my proposal here and I missed the opportunity to do this, and I did not fully describe these in the proposal. Make sure to pass along any good ideas you have for utilization in specific courses.

    Jeff: Be careful not to go far, so it looks like a DUE proposal. The research element has to be very strong, as well as the individual researchers. Multiple users of the project also.

    Joe: Remember this is the MRI. If reviewers do not like the research you are proposing they will NEVER get to your research-training.

  18. Intellectual merit, broader impact, identified outline? How to use the RFP to shape a proposal?

    No requirement to set up sections of the proposal. You do need to describe specific topics in sequence. We see a lot of proposals that are structured with those headings. It is key to address both NSF criteria in the one page summary, otherwise you risk having the proposal returned without review. Make use of BOLD WORDS–you want to get the attention of the reviewers, so don't be afraid to hit them over the head. You are going after a significant grant here!

    There is a five page document on the NSF website detailing a set of examples about the broader impact. It discusses the failure of proposals to be inclusive and topics other proposals have failed to include.

    ***Include major users of the instrument, with biographical sketches. Include the people that are not PI's but will use and benefit from the equipment the grant makes possible.

    ***If you can, demonstrate a collaboration with a government entity. The USGS is one possibility. One idea is to co-locate a campus for your faculty and students to utilize. Generally it is not a problem to have a collaboration with a government entity. Often we have MRI requests to house equipment, often have federal people as co-PI's too. This is certainly not a problem, however you would probably want to have a discussion with a specific program officer. If you are submitting a proposal for the first time, contact the NSF.

  19. Can behavioral scientists participate in this program?

    SBE submitted 22 proposals and received 7 awards (32%) for a total of $3.7 million

  20. Is it important that the techniques or instrument have commercial potential?

    Instrument development proposals have been successful in both cases, commercial potential or not. However if the instrument or technique has broader commercial potential it is often considered a plus in the review process. Make sure to discuss this potential if pertinent.

  21. Does the idea of idea of full utilization mean 24-7?

    The expectation you need to meet is that of yours peers. Make sure you illustrate the overall use and purpose of the equipment. This is the cut into your funding pool.

  22. How many proposals can be submitted per institution?

    We will accept up to three, but at least one must involve development. In actuality, all three could be in development!

    *** Resubmissions are encouraged. You should request feedback from program officers and answers that they owe you. It is very valuable to speak with a program officer two or three times during the time you are preparing a submission.

What participants gleaned and/or found most helpful about the call:

The teleconference provided me with a better understanding of the MRI program and indirectly also the CCLI program. I especially appreciated the discussion on the importance of research in the program and the allowance that the instruments obtained for research under the program could also be used for training.

Brent Bargeron, Utah Valley State College
Dept. of Physics, Visiting Scholar

While most elements of the call were very useful, we especially found the discussion on the balance between teaching and research and the integration of these areas the most helpful.

Kenneth Mills, Assistant Professor
Dept. of Chemistry, College of the Holy Cross

We learned several useful pieces of information that will be very helpful in the completion of our MRI proposal. Dr. Burt's comments delineating the need to demonstrate the college's long-term commitment to the equipment was of particular use. It was also good to be able to hear other people's questions and hear about other approaches and what has worked.

Karen Bernd, Assistant Professor
Dept. of Biology, Davidson College

The MRI program is a well-funded way to get state-of-the-art instrumentation into PUI research laboratories. Congress has been good to us in the PUI community in recognizing the importance of integrating research into our overall educational mission--let's make sure we demonstrate that that commitment is justified by applying to the program!

Thomas Varberg, Associate Professor and Chair
Dept. of Chemistry, Macalester College

The conference call was tremendously useful for me. Specific areas of new insight are that infrastructure improvements are NOT covered and that software and annual licenses are covered for computer proposals.

Dawn Wisner, Assistant Professor
Dept. of Chemistry, Lake Forest College

For first time submitters it was incredibly useful. The question and answer session with Joe Burt was the most helpful, and the skinny on specifics of balancing multi-use with focused research was particularly valuable.

James Gawel, Assistant Professor
Environmental Chemistry, Univ. of Washington, Tacoma

I participated in the PKAL conference call on December 9 and found Peter Chen's comments about including and RUI statement very helpful.

Michael Stickney, Director
Earthquake Studies Officer
Montana Tech of the University of Montana

For your Exxon-Mobil report, two of the most significant things that I learned were 1) the statistics about success rates, which are very encouraging, and 2) the tip about overtly defining the proposal's "Intellectual Merit" and "Broader Impacts" in the one-page project summary.

Jeff Osborn, Associate Professor
Dept. of Biology, Truman State University

Here's the list of NSF MRI coordinators with contact info and the link to the NSF broader impacts examples: