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Q&A: Funding Technology and Infrastructure through Research Grants

Nov 14

Written by: Grants Office, LLC
Tuesday, November 14, 2017  RssIcon

In the United States, the Federal Government is a primary source of funding for research initiatives. While all 26 federal grantmaking agencies fund research at some level, the bulk of funding is administered by the Department of Defense (DoD), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and National Science Foundation (NSF). The Department of Defense distributes research funding primarily through contracts, whereas the NIH and NSF favor grants as the mechanism to distribute these research dollars. The NIH and NSF oversee an annual budget of nearly $40 billion combined which is principally intended to fund research projects. Most applicants understand that these grants will fund project components such as salary, benefits, contractual expenses, and travel. However, some applicants fail to realize that they can also take advantage of these funding sources to purchase the technology and infrastructure that enables their research projects. In answering some basic questions through this Q&A, the hope is that universities and research institutes will be better able to leverage such grants to fund much needed infrastructure.

Q:  What do federal grantmakers consider reasonable in terms of the percent of the budget utilized for technology and infrastructure?

A:  It depends on both the type of grant you are pursuing as well as the specific restrictions associated with the funding opportunity. The majority of the $40 billion available through NIH and NSF is aimed at funding singular research projects. Decisions are made based on the intellectual merit of that specific research proposal, and any items requested in the budget must be justified by that singular research project. In other words, if a principal investigator is studying ice erosion in the Arctic, any compute, network, storage or infrastructure in the budget must be justified by that singular project. The storage you can include in the budget will be limited to the data being collected and manipulated for the specific arctic ice research project that is being proposed. In some cases, the request for proposals will specify restrictions; for example, no more than 20 percent of the budget can be used for equipment. As such, it is imperative that applicants abide by any such restrictions. In other cases, there is no defined limit on equipment, but funders expect to see a well-rounded budget that will include personnel and other expenses in addition to any proposed infrastructure. As a general rule of thumb, it is usually recommended that the equipment portion of your budget does not exceed 40 percent of the total funding amount when such restrictions are undefined for programs that support singular research projects.  While most research funding is targeted at singular projects, there are some grant programs that are primarily intended for infrastructure. The DoD, NIH, and NSF all have instrumentation grants available that are intended to support a broad range of principal investigators and research projects. Grant programs in this category require that the proposed instrumentation will benefit multiple scientific use cases, rather than a singular project. While researchers know that they can leverage these programs for specialized instruments like spectrometers, many fail to realize that you can position network, compute and storage infrastructure as an integrated instrument. An integrated instrument is one in which the various components work together to provide a resource that cannot be achieved in isolation, such as a compute and storage cluster. Since instrumentation grants are primarily intended to support infrastructure, the entire budget is usually dedicated to equipment resources. The key is to justify the equipment by demonstrating that a large contingent of researchers will be able to advance their individual projects by leveraging the new or enhanced infrastructure.

Q:  Are there any prerequisites to pursuing instrumentation grants from these federal grantmakers?

A:  When it specifically comes to the instrumentation grants available through these agencies, it is essential that the principal investigators at your institution have current projects that are being funded by the targeted funder. The instrumentation grants are intended to supplement existing support by deploying infrastructure that can take currently funded projects to the next level. If you are pursuing a Major Research Instrumentation Grant (MRI) through NSF, for example, it is imperative that you have existing projects funded through the NSF that will benefit from the proposed infrastructure. It is acceptable to also include projects funded through other means, if they are in fields of interest to the target funder. However, you must start with a base of science use cases currently funded by that agency to be competitive. This is true whether you are targeting the NSF through MRI or instrumentation grants available through the NIH and DoD. Institutions that cannot establish previous funding support may look to partner with other universities and research institutions on a project.

Q:  Is funding possible for a single campus or does the proposed infrastructure require the participation of multiple entities?

A:  There are many institutions that have significant research projects and current support from these federal agencies to justify individual campus-level support. However, research does not typically take place in a vacuum. Often researchers are working on join projects with colleagues at institutions across the country or even the world.  Demonstrating the impact of the infrastructure on research projects that involve multiple institutions will help you to justify the equipment and demonstrate a broad impact. Furthermore, if you can make the proposed infrastructure available community-wide or across multiple institutions, it will be viewed favorably be reviewers. Leveraging cloud-based tools in combination with compute and storage clusters may open the door to providing such capacity across a community or region.  In addition to instrumentation grants, funders like the NSF make other grants available that are targeted at big data infrastructure. Programs like the NSF’s Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) grant have tracts intended for campus-wide infrastructure deployment while other components of the program support multi-institution projects. Even in cases where the infrastructure deployment occurs at a single campus, it is imperative that the applicant documents any broader impacts in the application, such a research projects that involve collaboration with other institutions. 

Q:  What can you do if you are an institution that is small or just starting to develop a research portfolio?

A:  While it is true that most of the instrumentation and infrastructure grants require an established foundation of scientific use cases, there are some options for institutions that are in the beginning stages of developing a research portfolio. The first option is to partner with a larger and more-established research university. If there are any joint research projects between the faculty at your small institution and a larger research university, they can provide the bedrock to a solid partnership. The established research institution would need to be the lead applicant in most cases, but the smaller institution can benefit through any community-wide infrastructure that is proposed.If the small institution is looking to lead an application, they will still need to find a partner in most cases. The aforementioned CC* program has a tract dedicated to what they term “small institutions”.  However, the program still requires the applicant to find a lead institution that can serve as a “big brother”, or mentor of sorts. The lead mentor institution will essentially provide consultation around the technical design of an advanced research network, and the small institution can implement the network upgrades in the second year. Again, a great starting point is determining whether any of the faculty at the small institution are working on joint projects with faculty at major research universities. 

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