Using NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program to jumpstart research and teaching.

The semester is almost done and so is our funding series! If you are taking some time this break to finish up an NSF-MRI proposal (the deadline is Jan 11), or if you can imagine a need for a big expensive piece of instrumentation in your department….? Then this post is for you!


One of the significant challenges for faculty engaged in teaching and research in the Chemistry discipline is that it depends on accessing instrumentation—NMR, MS, X-ray diffractometers, etc—that is difficult, if not impossible, to procure with institutional funding.  Recognizing this reality, NSF has created a variety of funding programs, most notably the Major Research Instrumentation, or MRI, program (solicitation 15-504).  MRI is specifically designed to increase access to shared scientific instruments for research and research training.  This latter goal can be an ideal strategy for primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) to promote their research activities not just in terms of scientific impact, but also development of next generation scientists.  This approach also opens the door to well-thought out plans to use critical instrumentation in teaching, especially with institutions and programs that already embed research into the formal curriculum .  (see here and here for more on this idea).

MRI is specifically designed to increase access to shared scientific instruments for research and research training.  This latter goal can be an ideal strategy for primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) to promote their research activities not just in terms of scientific impact, but also development of next generation scientists.

We recently presented our experiences with the NSF-MRI program at the last CUR National Conference (June 2016) and wanted to share a few of the highlights of this session via the CUR Chemistry Blog.  Each of us have experienced success and disappointment with submitting MRI proposals and have served on review panels for this program.  We hope the insights from this post will encourage you to see MRI as a viable program to support your scholarly work and will help you prepare more successful proposals to the program.

Read the solicitation (then, read it again)

nsf-logoThe single best piece of advice we can offer is to make sure you read the solicitation and the NSF Proposal & Award Policies & Procedures Guide (PAPPG 16-1), understand the guidelines provided in these documents and follow these requirements as if your funding success depends on it (it does)!.  For example, the current MRI guidelines only allow you to request funds for a SINGLE piece of instrumentation.  If you are at a PUI, it is also worth knowing there is no lower limit on the request – ($100K lower limit for everyone else.  However, even at PUIs you should be aware that smaller instruments (things like routine FTIRs or UV-Vis spectrometers) are better funded through the equipment line of an individual investigator grant, which can easily support $30K (or more) of requested equipment. If you have questions or concerns about your planned request, contact the relevant NSF program officer. In all cases, the upper limit for an MRI proposal is $4 million.  If you are not at a PUI, there is a requirement that the institution provides exactly a 30% match (who says the big schools get all the advantages?).  You should also pay careful attention to all the items MAY NOT be supported through the NSF-MRI program  – i.e., facilities construction, general purpose equipment (office computers), sustaining infrastructure (operating costs), and instruments used primarily for education or clinical/pharmaceutical research.  We bring attention to the last item because if the anticipated primary use of the requested instrument is only associated to the classroom setting it will not be funded!  So be sure to build your proposal around your research needs, and then extend your proposal narrative to include teaching uses as a way of showing the broader impacts of the project.

“…if the anticipated primary use of the requested instrument is only associated to the classroom setting it will not be funded!”

The resources at your disposal…

There is a substantial amount of information provided in the NSF documents and on their website and it can sometimes seem a bit opaque (dare we say, impenetrable?).  If you find yourself with questions, please consider the tremendous resources that are available.

The program officer

First, don’t hesitate to contact an NSF program officer.  They really do want to help you prepare the most competitive proposal possible and will gladly answer questions by email or even phone.  You can also volunteer to serve as a reviewer, as NSF is continually looking for people willing and eligible to serve, especially from the PUI community.

Good examples

Lastly, search recent awards for the kind of instrument you are pursuing and then contact the successful investigator to ask for a copy of the awarded proposal.  Most investigators are thrilled to say yes to such requests (we all like to show off our best work!).  You should also seek assistance from the successful colleagues at your institution and from your professional networks.  The CUR Chemistry Councilors are yet another resource you should consider, since we firmly believe the purpose of CUR is to help the broader undergraduate research community achieve their best.

Case in point…

Now let’s take a look at a few case studies from our unsuccessful and successful proposals to see what tips can be gleaned.

Case 1:  Replacing an “aging” NMR (Rob Bachman, Sewanee)

brukerThe proposal sought to acquire a new 400MHz NMR to replace an antiquated and failing 300MHz instrument.  The proposal team included all research active faculty in the department with ANY use of NMR spectroscopy.  In the first version of the proposal we made the classic mistake of “throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick.”  A few comments:

  • “The claim is made that the students impacted include numerous students from underrepresented groups; however there are no figures to support this claim.”
  • “There are a number of concerns related to the vagueness of some of the proposed work”
  • “Even though the ‘Science of Food and Cooking’ course sounds interesting, there is a question of the need for non-science student to use high field NMR”
  • “The discussion of how old the existing instrument is could have been better described.”

“In the first version of the proposal we made the classic mistake of ‘throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick’.”

The proposal was justifiably declined; however, we learned a great deal from the comments.  In the second submission we paid careful attention to these comments.  We were specific in our claims, clearly showed need in every use of the instrument (as opposed to want), and documented everything with specific factual information.  The second submission was successful!

Case 2:  Acquisition of a Single-Crystal X-ray Diffractometer (Kraig Wheeler, Eastern Illinois University)

0904_wheeler1online_js-900x600
Dr. Kraig Wheeler

Securing specialty instrumentation, such as a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer, can offer a considerable challenge for PUIs.  Limited use, high expense, and disputed impact to student training are just a few concerns that may arise when considering the submission of such a proposal.  Our submission strategy focused on establishing an integrative applied crystallography center, open to students and faculty in the greater academic community of small colleges and universities that support undergraduate research.  By including seven senior personnel with the proposal, the impact of the requested instrumentation to research and student training was greatly enhanced from a single user instrument to a facility that could serve the greater science community.

Securing specialty instrumentation…can offer a considerable challenge for PUIs.  Limited use, high expense, and disputed impact to student training are just a few concerns that may arise when considering the submission of such a proposal.

The initial submission was rejected.  As shown below several reviewer comments indicate a lack of clarity with deficiencies in several important areas.

Reviewer Comments
Proposal Strengths Needs Improvement
Scientific Merit … research and pedagogical support for work at nine other institutions …

… intellectual merit of the proposal include the strong organic crystal engineering.

The scientific justification for the new instrument is only modest.

There are excellent X-ray facilities 45 miles away at the Univ. of …

Broader Impact … use of the instrument in teaching, both on-site, through two labs and an X-ray course for undergraduates and Masters students

The outreach program is impressive with 15 faculty from other schools …

No outreach to underrepresented groups …

… requested instrument is very, perhaps overly, sophisticated …

Only three of the collaborators, two at EIU, have current funding.

Management Plan The lab space available is adequate.

The PI has considerable experience maintaining an X-ray diffractometer.

… not clear how the remote experiments would be carried out …

… is not clear what budget increase is anticipated for parts and service calls.

Though every PI finds reviewer remarks unsettling, taking a step back and understanding the content and value of these often insightful comments can provide an invaluable resource for future proposals.

Success came after a second NSF-MRI submission, but only after careful consideration of reviewer comments.  Though every PI finds reviewer remarks unsettling, taking a step back and understanding the content and value of these often insightful comments can provide an invaluable resource for future proposals.  This instrumentation proposal was no different.  Reviewer suggestions guided revisions and ultimately helped craft a new strategy for a second proposal.  The second submission benefited from a stronger core of senior personnel committed to integrating the instrumentation with both research and teaching.  Admitting our institution’s deficiency with underrepresented student groups, while highlighting successes with female students was viewed positively.  In addition, clarifying the operational aspects of the proposed instrument including upkeep offered a strong case for the acquisition of an X-ray diffractometer.

Case 3:  Acquisition of a Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry Instrument for Research and Teaching (Amy Deveau, University of New England)

It is unusual that a grant gets funded on the first go-around, and we were lucky.  With that said, having an experienced co-PI who had previously received significant NSF funding and another co-PI who had recently served on a NSF panel were assets to our team.  However, not everyone has this experience.  Thus, I highly recommended that any PI contact a program officer to request getting placed on an MRI panel the year prior to planned submission!  This is one of the best ways to learn how the NSF review process works and also to understand key elements of the strongest (and also the weakest) MRI proposals.  (Learning what does not work for MRI is sometimes even more valuable!)

7010b-gcms-750x750Our strategy for the MRI proposal was to build an interdisciplinary user team at all levels of career: a chemical ecologist, an psychologist with expertise in animal behavior, an organic/medicinal chemist, a materials chemist with interests in green chemistry, and a marine scientist.   Not only did this variety of personnel on the grant enhance broader impacts and intellectual merit, but the variety also improved the general fundability of the proposal.

Another strategy to our submission was to carefully select the division to which the proposal was submitted.   Because it was commonplace to request money for a GC-MS instrument and more GC-MS proposals had been recently funded in the chemistry division, we sent our proposal to a NSF biology section.   In our successful proposal, the biological relevance of research projects was emphasized.

Resist the urge to select the most expensive or fanciest instrument model just because it has lots of “bells and whistles”.  Reviewers will see through this.

Importantly, an absolute must to being successful at an MRI submission is to request money for an instrument that makes sense for the research!  Resist the urge to select the most expensive or fanciest instrument model just because it has lots of “bells and whistles”.  Reviewers will see through this.  So, be deliberate in describing how and why this instrument, with its features, will be necessary for advancing the proposed science, extending use to the classroom when appropriate.

Finally, a usage and maintenance plan is an essential part of any MRI proposal.  It is a must to clearly explain how the instrument will be maintained.  In our case, institutional commitment to fund a formal maintenance contract once the grant term is up was included.  Alternatively, commitment from an individual with expertise and time to maintenance the instrument could be included, with care given to explain who will compensate the technician for the service.

Last but never least, don’t underestimate the importance of support letters from administrators at your institution, including  letters from department chairs should your team be inherently interdisciplinary.   These letters demonstrate that the proposal was vetted at all levels, extending confidence to NSF that your proposal has both roots and wings!


The submission deadline for the NSF-MRI program is   January 11, 2017. See this page for more information.


This is a joint point from Dr. Rob Bachman -F. B. Williams Professor and Chair of Chemistry at Sewanee – University of the South, Dr. Kraig Wheeler – Professor of Chemistry at Eastern Illinois University, and Dr. Amy Deveau – Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of Chemistry at the University of New England.

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