Expanding the Capacity for Discovery

The discovery of new knowledge is a rewarding event. For the student engaged in a hands-on learning experience, the reward can be personal growth and new confidence in his or her ability to reason scientifically. For the researchers exploring the frontier of knowledge, the reward can be the first glimpse at a new, unforeseen set of mysteries. For the nation that supports the discovery process, the reward can be a competitive edge in the global marketplace and the resulting increase in its standard of living.

NSF support for scientific instrumentation helps bring these and other rewards within reach. Until recently, scientists believed that light microscopes could not distinguish features that were separated in depth by less than one-half a micron (1/2,000th of a millimeter). The study of living cells and their behavior has always been limited by our ability to see the fine structures on their surfaces and inside them because these structures were beyond the resolution power of microscopes. Within the last 2 years, however, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Light Microscope Imaging and Biotechnology have developed a new instrument called the standing wave fluorescence microscope. This new microscope design breaks through this barrier and provides 10 times the depth resolution previously thought possible. NSF's support for instrument development at this Science and Technology Center has enabled not only the initial development of the new microscope but all the discoveries that investigators will make using the microscope.

An Overview of NSF Support for Instrumentation

Each year NSF receives in excess of 30,000 competitive proposals for support of research and education activities. Many of these proposals include requests for instrumentation, and NSF has a history of commitment to addressing these needs. Over the past decade, the Foundation has annually invested approximately 10 percent of its research and education funds in instrument development and acquisition. In fiscal year 1993, this investment totaled nearly $220 million.

There are different levels of instrument need within the research community. In order to support these opportunities proactively, the Foundation has developed three different funding mechanisms. Small requests of up to $20,000 are typically funded within a research project award. Higher cost items ranging between $20,000 and $100,000 are funded through dedicated instrumentation programs within each disciplinary area. The most expensive instrumentation, costing between $200,000 and $4 million, is funded through the Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) Program, which encompasses all research-related activities that NSF supports.

Instrumentation Support Within Disciplinary Areas

In fiscal year 1993, a little less than one-half of the Foundation's $220 million support for instrumentation was handled through the individual research project mechanism. Nearly $107 million was awarded to researchers for small scientific instruments to enable their NSF-funded research activity. However, many instruments are more sophisticated -- and therefore more costly -- or are for use by a group of investigators who have a common need. NSF's disciplinary areas recognized this next level of need in the early 1980s and developed dedicated instrumentation programs in response. There are now 15 such programs, representing virtually all of the disciplines supported by the agency. Given NSF's emphasis on interdisciplinary research, these programs have the flexibility to support instrument requests that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. These programs are an important source of funds for the development or acquisition of instruments valued between $20,000 and $100,000, and they provided approximately $99 million to researchers in fiscal year 1993. (Program information is listed on Table 1.)

Recent experience has demonstrated that the cost of many of the instruments required for the conduct of modern science has accelerated beyond the resources of these disciplinary programs. In recognition of this need, the Foundation developed the Academic Research Infrastructure Program in 1992 for instruments costing in excess of $200,000.

The Academic Research Infrastructure Program

The Academic Research Infrastructure Program has a unique role in supporting instrumentation needs of researchers and educators. The effort was developed to help the research community acquire, through purchase or development, major state-of-the-art instrumentation. "Major" instruments, as defined by the program, fall within the $200,000 to $4 million range. The Foundation promotes institutional commitment to these projects in the form of cost sharing. Most host institutions match NSF's investment in instrumentation with dollar- for-dollar partnership. The program encourages proposals from all types of institutions of higher education, independent nonprofit research institutions, research museums, and consortia of these entities.

The science and engineering community has responded enthusiastically to ARI's instrumentation program. Although institutions may submit only two proposals to the program each year, more than 220 proposals were received in the first competition, which was held in 1992. Sixty-six awards were made following this competition. (See Table 2 for a complete listing of these awards.) The number of proposals submitted to the second competition, held in 1994, doubled, reflecting total requests for $175 million in instrumentation.

In reviewing ARI instrumentation proposals, NSF seeks to support projects with the highest level of technical excellence and the greatest potential for enhancing and expanding research and training opportunities. NSF staff also consider the degree to which the proposed instrument will address research areas of strategic importance to the nation, the instrument's potential for shared use, and the geographic distribution of ARI Program funds. The selection of proposals for support also reflects the commitment of the host institutions and other partners to operating and maintaining the instrument, an appropriate representation of non-Ph.D.-granting institutions, and special efforts to increase the capabilities of colleges and universities with high minority enrollments. The ARI Program targets a minimum of 10 percent of its funds to minority institutions and non-Ph.D.-granting institutions.

Instrument Acquisition

Private industry has responded to the needs of the science and engineering community by manufacturing and marketing a wide array of scientific instruments. Thus, many of the instruments needed for research and research training are available as commercial products. These off-the-shelf instruments can be single items or large systems of instruments configured to address a family of projects. The majority of proposals submitted to the ARI Program request support for acquisition of instruments that are commercially available. These instruments allow research and research training to make progress efficiently, eliminating the need for every investigator to "reinvent the wheel."

Instrument Development

Researchers and educators rely on commercially available instruments, but their projects often explore an area to the point that new instrument capabilities are needed if research progress is to continue. To maximize these opportunities, NSF has designed the ARI Program to encourage partnerships that lead to new commercial products. Specifically, the ARI Program solicits joint proposals from academic institutions and private industry aimed at designing, developing, and testing new instruments that can potentially be marketed and sold to other scientists. By taking this initiative, NSF seeks to stimulate development of the next generation of scientific instruments -- and, in the process, helps create new companies, new products, and new high-quality jobs.

Institutional Commitment

As the primary steward for the health and vitality of science and engineering in the United States, NSF relies on the active partnership of the nation's colleges and universities. The commitment of each host institution is essential if NSF's support for instrumentation is to have the greatest possible impact. This institutional commitment comes in many forms, and the Foundation takes a flexible approach to encouraging active partnership with host institutions. Commitment can be expressed through matching funds; support for instrument installation and supplies; and underwriting the ongoing costs of operations, staffing, and maintenance.