NSF Developing Strategy to Address Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure Needs

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Publication date: 
13 October 2017
Number: 
136

The National Science Foundation is seeking input from the research community as it develops a congressionally mandated strategy for adressing mid-scale research infrastructure needs. Enhancing support for such projects — which historically have been ineligible for funds from NSF’s two foundation-wide infrastructure grant programs — is one of its 10 “big ideas” for future investment.

On Oct. 6, the National Science Foundation issued a request for information (RFI) on existing and future scientific community needs for mid-scale research infrastructure (RI). The stated purpose of the RFI, which is the latest in a series of steps NSF has taken to evaluate mid-scale RI needs across disciplines, is to help NSF develop a strategy for addressing those needs.

Congress directed NSF to produce the strategy in a provision of the recently enacted American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (AICA). Enhancing support for mid-scale RI is also one of the foundation’s 10 “big ideas” for future investment, which it developed prior to Congress passing the AICA.

NSF says that many scientific discoveries could be enabled by mid-scale RI, but such projects often fall in a gap between the eligibility thresholds of the foundation-wide programs that are dedicated to funding RI. Currently, NSF funds mid-scale projects through the budgets of its six research directorates.

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The Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA) is designed to study how the universe was ionized after the first stars formed. The project receives funding from the Mid-Scale Innovations Program, which NSF’s Division of Astronomical Sciences created based on a recommendation of the most recent decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics.

(Image courtesy of Dave DeBoer / University of California, Berkeley)

NSF focusing on projects in funding gap from $20-100 million

The RFI defines mid-scale RI as projects that cost between $4 million and $100 million.

The lower bound is equal to the maximum size of grants issued by NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program, which supports the acquisition or development of single instruments for shared use, such as advanced spectrometers and electron microscopes. The upper bound represents the minimum award size at which a project is considered to be a major multi-user research facility. Until recently, this amount was the approximate lower eligibility threshold for NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) program, which is primarily used to construct flagship research facilities. Current MREFC projects include the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.

NSF lowered the MREFC threshold from $100 million to $70 million in November 2016, a move the RFI describes as an “initial step to support potential priorities in mid-scale science and infrastructure.”

The RFI notes that NSF is most interested in mid-scale RI projects that fall between $20 million and $100 million in total cost. It explains, “This range is of primary interest to NSF as it will help us anticipate the potential impact of lowering the MREFC threshold as well as identifying promising projects that remain difficult to address within program budgets due to the comparatively large investment needed in a relatively short period of time.”

The RFI seeks submissions of project ideas that describe the scientific breakthroughs they would enable, provide evidence of research community support, and explain the intended concept of operations. However, it also stresses that NSF has not established a new funding source for such projects and that the RFI should not be taken to imply that NSF intends to issue a formal call for proposals.

Submissions are due by Dec. 8. After assessing the responses, NSF plans to summarize the high-level insights for the science community and internal NSF use.

Recent NSF efforts offer insights into mid-scale needs across disciplines

Several NSF divisions have taken actions in recent years to more formally support and assess demand for mid-scale RI. Historically, NSF often relied on unsolicited proposals to identify potential mid-scale projects. More recently, some NSF divisions have created programs dedicated to mid-scale RI, which allows them to collect and assess multiple proposals simultaneously.

For example, the Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) established a Mid-Scale Innovations Program (MSIP) at the recommendation of the most recent National Academies decadal survey for astronomy and astrophysics, known as New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH). The survey ranked creation of such a program as the second highest priority for large, ground-based projects. The latest call for MSIP proposals says that the division estimates it will issue between one and four awards with a total funding amount of $4 million to $30 million, pending the outcome of fiscal year 2018 appropriations.

The mid-term review of NWNH implementation lamented that the amount of funding available to the program since its creation has been far lower than what the study committee envisioned. “The total NSF-AST funding for mid-scale initiatives has dropped by nearly a factor of two since the start of the decade, in stark contrast to the NWNH recommendation of MSIP as a new initiative that would expand opportunities for mid-scale projects,” it observed.

The review also stressed that the program has demonstrated the high-level of demand for mid-scale RI: 

Despite limited resources for MSIP, NSF-AST has funded an exciting set of highly ranked proposals in a heavily oversubscribed competition. ... The scientific promise of these projects confirms the NWNH expectation that a mid-scale program would enable major advances that respond nimbly to opportunities on a diverse range of science topics.

NSF has also recently sponsored several workshops dedicated to identifying mid-scale RI needs.

Among them, the Division of Chemistry held workshops on mid-scale instrument development and regional mid-scale facilities in September 2016. The Division of Materials Research held workshops on mid-scale instrumentation for biomaterials in August 2016 and for quantum materials in December 2016. The chemistry workshops reports are now available, but the materials research workshop reports have not yet been released.

Congressional interest in mid-scale infrastructure continues

The AICA is not the first time Congress has asked NSF to assess needs for mid-scale RI. In the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, Congress directed the National Science Board, NSF’s governing board, to evaluate demand for mid-scale RI across all disciplines and weigh in on whether NSF should expand existing programs or create new mechanisms that support mid-scale RI.

In its final report, submitted to Congress in 2011, NSB concluded, “NSF’s current balance of small, medium and large instrumentation is sound, and that the variety of mechanisms by which NSF prioritizes, solicits, evaluates, and supports mid-scale instrumentation — both directly, and indirectly through large centers and facilities — provides flexibility and vigor to NSF’s efforts. Consequently, although the Board’s evaluation points to the importance of continuing strongly to support mid-scale instrumentation, the Board does not recommend that NSF expand existing Foundation-wide programs or create a new Foundation-wide program for mid-scale instrumentation at this time.”

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NSF mid-scale research infrastructure investments

Figures from the 2011 NSB report that depict the distribution and character of NSF’s mid-scale research infrastructure investments that were funded through individual research directorates as of fiscal year 2011. Amounts represent the total multi-year value of active awards.

(Image credit – National Science Board)

Since the passage of the AICA, mid-scale RI has again cropped up in Congress. The appropriations committee report accompanying the House’s fiscal year 2018 spending bill for NSF includes the following directive:

The Committee is supportive of recent actions to lower the MREFC threshold but encourages the National Science Board to consider further changes that would bridge the gap between the Major Research Instrumentation program and the MREFC account while also developing processes appropriate for mid-scale infrastructure, cyberinfrastructure, and instrument upgrades to be funded through the MREFC account. The Board shall, in collaboration with the National Academies, examine these requirements and report to the Committee within 180 days after enactment of this Act regarding its recommendations on how to address this matter within the confines of a restricted funding environment.

This language signals that Congress may be open to using MREFC funding to support mid-scale RI and upgrade existing facilities. The MREFC account has funded facility improvements in the past, such as a $200 million upgrade to the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, although it primarily has been used to construct new facilities.

Negotiations between the House and Senate will determine whether this committee guidance is included in the final appropriations agreement for fiscal year 2018.

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