Notes on writing a proposal for the ADBC program at NSF

The solicitation is document NSF 15-576 and can be found on the NSF web site. It is very important to consider every word in a solicitation, since this document has been carefully prepared to guide proposals and to explain the goals of the program. Also it will indicate any restrictions on who might submit, eligible institutions, documents required, etc.  The deadline date is also provided at the beginning of the solicitation – which states that it will be the third Friday in October annually. The solicitation may be updated, and therefore subject to change prior to the deadline.  New or revised solicitations are typically published at least 90 days prior to deadline.

Integration with iDigBio (National Resource)
All data should be shared with iDigBio as part of the projects. However, since this program is built on networks of people working together, it is expected that all activities and efforts of the networks will be collaborating with iDigBio. For the first year, it is expected that networks will report three times officially to iDigBio and that by the end of the first year specimen data should be flowing into the national resource. It is also expected that outreach, education, training activities, protocols, workflows, sharing resources such as virtual meeting capabilities, etc. will be shared through iDigBio and that efforts will be coordinated to avoid any duplication of activities. It is important that all TCN activities enhance and enrich the national resource. Therefore consultation with iDigBio, examination of their web site for resources available, and thought prior to the proposal about ways to integrate is highly recommended.

NOTE LIMITS on PI status.
A person may be a PI or coPI on only one proposal in any ANNUAL competition.  Remember if a name appears on the cover sheet the person is a PI. Therefore it is critically important not to put anyone on your proposal cover sheet as a coPI without their permission. This may seem obvious, but often PIs will add personnel who have subawards under their proposal to the cover sheet, and when these people are providing expertise to more than one project proposed, then they appear as coPIs on more than one submission. This jeopardizes the eligibility of the complete project as NSF can return these projects without review for not following the guidelines. For these cases, senior personnel is the appropriate category for that person who was a subaward and therefore will not on appear on the cover sheet as a PI.

Note institutions eligible to submit.
Institution eligibility is important, because this program supports the digitization of collections of PHYSICAL specimens OWNED by a nonfederal, U.S. institution. These institutions have guidelines and policies on the care and maintenance of the specimens and guidelines for sharing of the specimens and data to a broad research community. Should awards be made for the project, the money goes to the institution as an infrastructure award.  Specimens that are not owned by the institution are not eligible for digitization funding from this program, since they would not be governed by the institution’s policies. (See note on data below.) Ownership should be evident at the time of the proposal; letters indicating that a collection will eventually be given to an institution are not considered to indicate actual ownership.

Note that any one institution can be the lead organization on only one network (TCN) proposal in any annual competition.
Organizing and overseeing the network of institutions is a substantial commitment and requires additional personnel time.  However, institutions may participate as collaborating institutions on more than one TCN, especially because institutions often have several collections with staff time committed for the actual digitization process. This restriction is for the TCN category only; lead institutions for at TCN may also submit PENs for the same competition.

Note the research theme as an organizing rationale
Networks should be organized around a research challenge that can be answered by providing the information from the biodiversity specimens to be digitized. This research challenge is generally of interest to the PIs involved in the network and often is an outcome of previous research on the part of the PIs and the expectation is that the specimen data will inform future research for the team as well as other researchers. The solicitation requests that an assessment of the specimens to be digitized is done as evidence that these specimens are important for the research theme and needed for the research theme. Note that the community plan (NIBA/BCoN activity) states that a goal is to involve all institutions which house collections but it does not state that every single specimen held within that institution necessarily should be digitized.  This program certainly does not have a budget that would support digitization of every single specimen in the collections, but should be viewed as a ‘start’ on the process. Seeding institutions with the necessary protocols, equipment, and informatics tools can begin a long term commitment for the individual institutions to make all their data available.

Eligible specimens
Eligible specimens are those that are already curated and ready to be digitized with minimal preparation. Not supported are new collections not yet stored, buckets of specimens not prepared, parts of specimens not linked to the actual voucher specimen, etc. The emphasis of the program is on the complete voucher specimen and its associated prepared material.

Notes on BUDGETS:
Because of the heterogeneity of the specimens, costs for various aspects of digitization vary greatly. However, some points to remember are: the goal is to provide the basic information about the specimens, it is not to provide enhanced or specialized research-quality images that may be unique to certain fields; since these are networks there should be sharing of efforts, personnel, equipment, data entry for duplicate specimens or localities, etc. across the networks. Resources for outreach, data handling, programs, etc. should be integrated closely with iDigBio and not duplicate efforts which the national resource is providing but should enhance their efforts and extend their activities through the networks. It is expected that costs will be driven down through these efforts.

There is a budget limit on the Partners to Existing Networks (PEN) activities of $150,000 for the institution joining a network with an additional allowance for a subaward to the lead TCN institution of $25,000 in order to accommodate the new partner for data handling, training, equipment, etc. Note that this allowance should be as a subaward or subcontract to the lead TCN institution, not as a separate collaborative proposal. Duration of the PEN may extend beyond the duration of the original TCN.

While there is no actual budgetary limit on the TCN proposals, the higher the request the stronger the proposal needs to be in the eyes of the reviewers. The program runs on a budget of $10 million annually, but this includes the mortgages from previous awards as well as new awards. Approximately $6.5 million is available for new awards every year and the program has tried to fund about three projects from this. Checking the awards web site at NSF will indicate that the average TCN award is about $2.5 million total for the duration of the award. The higher the request, the more critical our reviewers have been in terms of the fit of the specimens to the research question, the justification for all activities proposed, the need for the information to be provided for a broad community of researchers, and in general, is that award good enough to be the only award made in any single year.

For TCN projects, an integrated budget across the complete project is requested, and you should present the totals for the various budget categories (i.e. add the amount requested for graduate student salaries across institution A, B, C, D, etc., and provide that total budget number in the integrated budget). As part of this budget, you are asked for the cost per specimen. You may either divide the total budget by number of specimens to be digitized or you may sort out those activities to actually just do the digitization and provide the information electronically and divide by number of specimens, but please clarify what factors you used to determine your cost for the reviewers. If cost per specimen differs across the institutions involved in the network, it is helpful to indicate the factors for disparate costs.

Data included in projects.
Note that data from other sources may be important for the research theme selected. One question often asked concerns data from federal collections. While this program cannot support the actual digitization efforts for specimens owned by other federal institutions (since according to congressional budgets each federal institution is responsible for the collections they own), this program encourages the integration of the data from those collections. Many federal collections already have database information about their specimens, some (Smithsonian Institution, for example) have ongoing digitization projects that could match your project, and some may be willing to work with you on projects though creative use of students, citizen scientists, intern programs, etc. to provide needed information about their specimens that can be included in your network projects. There is no restriction on integration of the data that exists and is important for research efforts. Likewise, other data may already be available from another institution that is important for the theme, and these data can also be included. This program has an agreement with the USGS program BISON (Biodiversity Information Serving Our Nation) that data will be shared between federal and nonfederal efforts. Therefore, iDigBio will share your data with BISON if it is pertinent to their efforts and your projects can utilize data that is served through BISON.

Information about foreign specimens follows similar guidelines. Note that if a U.S. institution has specimens collected in foreign countries that are owned by the U.S. institution they can be digitized for the project. Then it may be important to integrate data available from foreign institutions that they have digitized already in order to provide better support for the research theme.  This program cannot provide funds for digitization of foreign-owned specimens, but projects should utilize and integrate that data already available if it is pertinent.

Management Plans
A management plan must be included in the project description. This is the place to describe roles and responsibilities, risk assessment and strategies, timelines, task analyses, etc. that will allow reviewers to assess the scope and plan for completing the project. Note that inserting any of these items into a budget justification is not appropriate. That document is limited to an explanation of the line items in the budget.

Supplemental documents and single copy documents
Please note that ONLY certain supplemental documents are allowed by the solicitation. Do not submit any additional documents, as you will be asked to remove them or your proposal (project) can be returned without review. Also note that an integrated conflicts list for all personnel should be submitted as a single copy document, NOT a supplemental document. Follow the guidelines in the solicitation for all these documents.

Number of total pages for collaborative projects
Be aware that collaborative projects must be submitted through FastLane. There is a little known problem with numbers of pages and soemtimes over 500 pages cannot compile as collaborative projects. This sounds like a lot, but if you think about the number of personnel with biosketches, the individual institution budgets, facilities pages, the table of contents, cover pages, etc., for all the institutions involved, then 500 pages becomes quite attainable.  We break the system every year with these large projects, and it causes no end of trouble. If you cannot see the complete proposal when the lead TCN institution is ready to submit the project, then we cannot see it either, nor can we send it out for review. There are some things you can do – be sure you don’t have any blank pages, run the biosketches into a single document for each proposal (the limit for any one biosketch is 2 pages but that does not mean that you cannot utilize all the space by running these as a continuous file document, and check your final document to be sure that you have not wasted space with unnecessary information already present elsewhere (personnel roles in task analysis and also in budget justification, or data storage/handling in the data management plan and also in the facilities description, for example).  Please check this issue well before the deadline for submission and try to reduce the number of total pages for the complete collaborative project to less than 500. Checking this the day before the submission deadline is about two weeks too late – as each individual institution will need to reformat their proposals and then the lead institution will need to gather them together into a single submission, and check to see if the complete proposal is visible in collated format. PIs wishing to submit a proposal are always encouraged to consult a cognizant Program Director.