Scientific progress and breakthroughs are often facilitated by the development and application of new technologies and cutting-edge equipment, which is often expensive to acquire and maintain. This article is a primer for how you can bring these resources to your institution as shared instruments to advance discoveries by federally funded investigators there.
Here we focus on preparing a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Shared Instrumentation Grant (SIG) application, because this program is the most flexible of the three most common equipment programs1 and is applicable to most situations.
To dramatically increase your chances of success:
1. Plan your submission well in advance.
2. Assemble a solid user group with a demonstrated need for the requested instrument.
3. Demo the requested instrument to allow your user group to obtain preliminary data (this requires advance planning and teamwork).
4. Give your user group an early deadline to submit their project descriptions to you.
5. Recruit at least three NIH-funded investigators to form a user group. Of the major users at least 75% should be funded by the NIH or other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy, or the Department of Defense
Preparing a SIG Application
First, read the program announcement. Details of grant organization and specific requirements change yearly. Be sure to observe the page limits for each section. Note that your submission may be rejected for not following guidelines!
Pay attention to the Foreword/Summary. Your job is to communicate the need of the user group for the particular instrument to the study panel by highlighting the five or more major criteria utilized in scoring a shared instrumentation grant: 1) justification of need, 2) technical expertise, 3) research projects, 4) administration, 5) institutional commitment, and 6) overall benefit. Any of these criteria, if poorly addressed, is certain to sink your application. The rest of the application consists of eight parts:
Introduction to Resubmission (three pages). If an earlier grant application was scored but not funded, the Introduction to Resubmission section is a forum to address the major/minor criticisms of the previous submission and thus gives you an advantage. You can provide additional information to strengthen the justification of need and to further expand on the importance of the instrumentation to the research proposed and to the broader needs of the institution.
Justification of Need (nine pages). This section, more than any other, allows the PI to be creative in selling and communicating the need for the requested instrument. It includes:
1. A single brief paragraph summarizing the scope of the proposal in terms of the user group, instrument, cost, and instrument capabilities. It is essentially a brief synopsis of the Foreword/Summary.
2. A brief history of the core facility in which the instrument will be housed
3. In one paragraph, a detailed description of the requested instrument and a brief historical perspective about the development and evolution of the instrument and technology. This is an opportunity for the PI to convince the review panel that he or she understands the technology and appreciates the pros and cons of the proper use/application of the instrument.
4. A statement about the rationale for selecting the instrument and its importance to the research objectives
5. A detailed comparison of the requested instrument with other similar, commercially available systems
6. A discussion of access to existing equipment and why that equipment is either unavailable or not suitable
7. Last, a summary of the proximal inventory of similar systems that might have been used but cannot be for one reason or another. You should provide letters from the owners or core directors of the other instruments that attest to the reason these instruments are unavailable.
Technical Expertise (three pages). In this section the PI should:
1. Describe the day-to-day use, oversight, and maintenance of the instrument. Include a brief discussion of the expertise of the PI, user group, and staff.
2. Present one or two paragraphs discussing the technical/scientific advisory committee. Mention advisors and consultant(s) who will advise on experimental design, use, and application of the instrument.
3. Discuss data management and infrastructure that will support the use of the instrument.
4. Provide a detailed review of biosafety/biohazard protocols.
Research Projects (30 pages). This section should begin with a brief summary of the composition of the major-user group—the schools, divisions, departments, and universities involved—and should convey the broad use and support the instrument would have within the research community. List the major users first (project descriptions of two to four pages), then minor users (abbreviated project descriptions). Each research project should be organized as follows:
1. PI name and title, PI role, and project title
2. One to three specific aims
3. Background and significance
4. Preliminary results that validate the need, use, and application of the requested equipment. Ideally, the data will be gathered on the requested instrument.
5. Experimental procedures and protocols. (Provide sufficient detail to demonstrate your understanding of the use of the instrument and of difficulties that may be encountered.)
6. Use, application, and need for the requested instrument in fulfilling specific aims. This should also address specific accessories requested and the unique capabilities of the instrument.
Summary Tables (six pages). Two tables should be included. The first table lists the users, their role in the project (major or minor user), title of the project, funding source including grant number, and percent use. Table two lists the users, use and applications, and accessories and features needed. At least three of the major users must need the requested options or accessories to justify their inclusion in the grant request.
Administration (six pages). The importance of this section cannot be overstated; it communicates the organization and management plan. The goal is to convince the study panel that the instrument will be well utilized and cared for during its useful service life. The administration section should include:
1. A description of the entity or core facility that will oversee the instrument
2. The specific location and space where the instrument will reside, including architectural and engineering drawings as needed and any necessary renovations
3. Discussion of the administration of the instrument including the oversight committee, instrument access, scheduling, and dispute resolution
4. Composition and role of your technical advisory committee
5. A financial plan should be presented in detail including plans for income from charging for use (“recharge income”), instrument maintenance, and ongoing support of the service contract. Also discuss support for the core and technical staff. Provide an operating budget table covering the first four years that includes anticipated expenditures for staff, supplies, and the instrument, usage hours, and anticipated recharge income.
Institutional Commitment (three pages). Discuss the institutional support of the core, staff, and other common-use instruments. If applicable, it is extremely helpful (really, it is essential) to include a letter of support from your chair or dean that commits to support in perpetuity of the service contract for the requested instrument. This letter should also include a commitment to cover the cost of any renovations.
Overall Benefit (three pages). Succinctly convey in one or two paragraphs the broad benefit of the new instrument to the greater research community. It is fine to place the instrument in the context of the core facility and communicate the instrument’s broad benefit to the core facility and to the research infrastructure of the university.
In the end, probably 75% of the grant will be devoted to the NIH-mandated requirements. However, you can use the remaining 25% to reveal your creative side. A grant that is enjoyable to read makes for a happy reviewer, and a happy reviewer is more inclined to score well. Good luck and happy writing!
1The three most common equipment grant programs are: 1) the SIG program at NIH; 2) the High End Instrumentation (HEI) program at NIH; and 3) the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program at the NSF. The HEI program is limited to instruments over $2 million; 10 grants are awarded annually. The MRI program has criteria that limit who may qualify. The SIG program (NIH activity code S10) provides between $100,000 and $600,000 per grant; when combined with institutional support, it can enable the purchase of very powerful equipment