Not too big, not too small: Mid-scale Research Infrastructure awards may be “Goldilocks” research support

Auroras play over the South Pole Telescope. Credit: Dr. Keith Vanderlinde

Goldilocks et al. would be ideal applicants to the National Science Foundation Mid-scale Research Infrastructure (Mid-scale RI) program as the awards are not too big, and not too small – just right.

As one of the NSF’s 10 “Big Ideas” introduced in 2016, Mid-scale RI represents the proverbial roads, tunnels, and bridges of our American research enterprise. The first phase awards are for implementation and design projects that aim to fill the research gap between smaller and larger grants to develop state-of-the-art equipment, computational hardware and software, and support the design and planning of such projects. These projects do not fund any single research question; instead, they are meant to provide cutting-edge tools and technology to achieve, well, cutting-edge science and groundbreaking discoveries in diverse areas of science and engineering.

NSF just awarded over $121 million to 10 proposals which showed the greatest promise to “fill gaps and provide unique research capabilities for the U.S. which will engage many early-career scientists and engineers.” One such project will build a faster, more interconnected network between research institutions, and another will expand the Event Horizon Telescope project with new smaller telescopes to ultimately improve the clarity of the next black hole image and even capture video of how material around it moves.

Here are this year’s Mid-scale RI program awardees:

1.Next-generation Event Horizon Telescope design            

The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) team led by Shep Doleman at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will design improvements to the EHT including the addition of several new, smaller telescopes allowing for clearer images and even the ability to capture videos of the light emitted by swirling material around black holes.

2. Next-generation Wyoming King Air atmospheric research aircraft

The University of Wyoming, led by Bart Geerts, will modify a new university-owned research aircraft with new research instrumentation. This advanced research platform supports cutting-edge NSF-funded research to better understand clouds, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, wildfires, etc.

3. 1.2 GHz NMR spectrometer for National Gateway Ultrahigh Field NMR Center

The Ohio State University, led by Rafael Bruschweiler, will acquire a 1.2 Ghz nuclear magnetic resonance instrument – the first in the U.S. that is all-superconducting – which will help U.S scientists compete with international peers to study biological interaction and function at a molecular level.

4. Consortium proposal for CMB-S4 design development

The University of Chicago, led by John Carlstrom, will undertake a collaborative effort to design special next generation superconducting cameras at the South Pole, Chile, and other observation sites to study the early evolution of the universe.

5. Compact X-ray Free-Electron Laser project (CXFEL)

Arizona State University, led by Bill Graves, will design a novel Compact X-Ray Free Electron Laser to enable cutting-edge research in biology, chemistry and condensed matter physics. The compact design will allow significantly more university and industrial lab access to this technology.

6. World-class neutron spin echo spectrometer for the nation

A University of Delaware, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology), and the University of Maryland consortium, led by Norman Wagner, will upgrade the neutron spin echo spectrometry facility in partnership with NIST, providing U.S. researchers with new capabilities to make very precise, tiny measurements in materials and biology.

7. FABRIC: Adaptive programmaBle networked Research Infrastructure for Computer science

A collaborative partnership, led by The University of North Carolina’s Ilya Baldin, will create the FABRIC testbed, a lightning-speed nationwide next-gen network of major research centers to improve security research, performance, and adaptability issues of the current internet to benefit science applications. This is in partnership with the University of Kentucky, the DOE (Department of Energy) Energy Sciences Network, Clemson University, and Illinois Tech.

8. Zettawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System (ZEUS)

The University of Michigan, led by Karl Krushelnick, will create the most powerful laser in the United States, enabling researchers to perform cutting-edge experiments in plasma physics and laser science.

9. Light source for advancing national research interests in quantum materials and energy conversion

The Ohio State University, led by Lawrence Baker, will develop an extreme ultraviolet and soft X-ray laser to provide U.S.  scientists the ability to control matter at the atomic (very small) and sub-atomic (very very small!) scale.

10. SAGE: A software-defined sensor network

Northwestern University, led by Peter Beckman and collaborators, will design and build new reusable software and cyberinfrastructure to network and integrate intelligent sensors, including cameras, microphones, and weather stations to quickly analyze massive amounts of environmental and disaster data.