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Next Generation Optical Microscopy Initiative

This call is now closed for applications and is available for reference purposes only.

Researchers are invited to apply for funding through a new joint Next Generation Optical Microscopy Initiative, led by the Medical Research Council (MRC), and with co-funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Pump-priming investment of up to £18 million (£15m MRC, £2m BBSRC and £1m EPSRC) is available to support 10 or more strategic and innovative partnerships for up to five years during a period of rapid expansion, improvement and establishment of new microscopy technologies.


The aims of the initiative are to establish strategic and innovative partnerships with sufficient critical mass to:

  • Establish next generation microscopy platforms to tackle key, tractable research questions in biomedicine and underpinning biology that utilises cutting-edge light microscopy and dynamic cell imaging
  • Accelerate development of a vibrant research environment that can capitalise on new technological developments in optical microscopy
  • Support multi-disciplinary partnerships between biomedical, biological and physical scientists to drive technological innovation
  • Develop strong partnerships with equipment manufacturers to ensure that researchers influence and help deliver future technological breakthroughs
  • Ensure efficient and effective use of the equipment and expert support


Background to this investment

The importance of optical microscopy to biomedical research is without question. There have been significant and rapid technological improvements over recent years in light microscopy: in resolution, depth of field, throughput and signal processing. These have been accompanied by the development of better probes, sample preparation, software and complex data processing/storing/sharing capability. These developments underpin the recent establishment of super-resolution microscopy, which significantly overcomes the ca 250nm resolution limit and helps bridge the resolution gap between light and electron microscopy. The UK has an internationally-renowned end-user research base that is well placed to quickly capitalise on this next generation technology. And transform our understanding of cell biological signalling and processes in health and disease.


Consultation has highlighted the need for strategic investment to help the UK research community capitalise on the latest technologies. The high costs associated with the new equipment have made it difficult to establish this critical technology within UK research institutions. There is also significant opportunity for technological innovation. Strategic investment is needed to help address the challenge of supporting multi-disciplinary research between engineers, physicists, chemists, mathematicians and biologists to innovate in an exciting and important area where the UK is lagging behind internationally.


The MRC, BBSRC and EPSRC agree that there is the need for an injection of investment now to establish and accelerate capability in the UK. Over the next few years the Research Councils would expect the top research institutes to establish these new technologies and the initiative described here will help kick-start these developments. Whilst we anticipate that much of the focus and demand will be directed towards super-resolution microscopy, the initiative is open to applications proposing to establish and develop other next generation optical microscopy platforms.


Scope and expectations

Applications from Research Organisations (RO) partnerships or single ROs with a breadth of expertise are welcome. The initiative is principally targeted at cell biology research in biomedicine and underpinning biology.


Successful partnerships will be expected to:

  • Build on research excellence in the field of cell biology and associated disciplines that connects the best science in their institution(s), with a proven track record in cutting-edge optical microscopy. Applicants must provide a clear picture of their research strengths and innovative questions that can be tackled using the latest technologies.
  • Provide appropriate technical and facility support to establish, develop and sustain specialist infrastructure. This can be directed to support both currently available cutting-edge platforms and the development of new generation technologies. The Funders are keen to understand how these investments will help drive the development and refinement of existing next generation microscopes, probes and software and how they might catalyze future development of novel optics, sensors and detectors, including in-field devices.
  • Provide a clear management and governance structure with a robust plan for providing local access to equipment and services. Applicants should consider how access to the facility will be prioritised and granted, for example, it is expected that priority will be given to projects that have already passed rigorous peer review and that are relevant to the strategy and mission of MRC, BBSRC or EPSRC. A plan for how the institute will support the facility in the longer term should be included in the proposal. It is expected that services will be self-sufficient towards the end of the award.
  • Provide details of existing and proposed funding and support, including any leveraged support from co-funders. Other funding sources may include: the host institution, additional funding organisations (e.g. charities); commercial partnership investment with equipment suppliers etc. Applicants are expected to provide evidence of strong institutional support within their application, including funding and “in-kind” contributions (for example towards equipment and support costs).


Please note equipment requests must be consistent with the principles set out in RCUK guidance. Also see the Next Generation Optical Microscopy Initiative Applicants Guidance document for information on how to detail equipment costs within your application.


Additional strengths

In addition to the core expectations detailed above, we are particularly keen to invest in inter-disciplinary collaborative activities between biologists, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers and technologists, spanning the strategic interests of each Research Council. With support from small innovation seed-funding, we would like to promote the development of new probes (e.g. protein derivatisation with new fluorescent agents) and computational approaches for image capture and analysis, as well as new optics and sensors.


Applicants are also encouraged to develop strong relationships with equipment suppliers, helping to establish the UK as an important test-bed for the development new commercial prototypes (e.g. acting as beta test sites). Applicants should describe the advantages of working in partnership with manufacturers and ensure the appropriate servicing agreements and governance is in place. Partnership with the biomedical and pharmaceutical industry partners where appropriate is also welcomed.



This call follows standard RCUK eligibility criteria and is open to UK-based researchers who can show they will direct the proposed research and be actively engaged in carrying it through. Eligible institutions include UK higher education institutions, Research Council Units and Institutes, and eligible Independent Research Organisations (IROs).


Research Councils’ Units and Institutes

MRC Institutes and Units will be eligible to apply with the expectation that their requests will be predominantly for equipment and where appropriate innovation seed-funding. MRC Institutes and Units are not eligible to apply for facility support costs (including staff and consumables). These requirements are supported through existing core funding.


Potential applicants from BBSRC Institutes should note that BBSRC co-funding is for resource only and not capital. BBSRC Institutes can be a partner in an application that provides greater scientific breadth and capability, where equipment is located in the partner University or MRC Unit/Institute environment. BBSRC Institutes may also apply for research funding and innovation seed funding to enhance and maximize existing facilities.


Partnership with Industry

Research proposals that are led by commercial entities are not eligible. However partnerships with industry are welcome. Applicants considering establishing a collaboration with an industrial partner(s), are advised to refer to the guidance on MRC Industry Collaboration Awards (MICAs).


Financial support available

Up to £18m will be available under this call. This is composed of £10m capital funded by the MRC and £8m resource (£5m MRC, £2m BBSRC and £1m EPSRC). The expected scale of awards is in the range of £1m to £2m depending on capability and ambition. Awards will be for up to 5 years.


Funding can be requested for:

  • Next generation microscopes, especially super-resolution platforms
  • Facility support – including capacity building support for enabling roles such as technical innovators and support staff.
  • Partnership development funding to bring together inter-disciplinary research excellence to foster collaborations to develop technological innovation. Applicants can request small innovation seed-funding (£50-100k per activity) to support early partnership activities e.g. developing new probes and approaches for sample preparation, optics, sensors or software for image-capture.


Given the different models for supporting research within MRC Institutes/Units and Universities, there will be discrete requirements for funding – these are summarised in the table below:



Facility support and capacity building

Pump-priming seed-fund for partnership development





MRC Institutes and Units




BBSRC Institutes





University - Research Councils’ Unit/Institute Partnerships

University - Unit/Institute partnerships may be eligible for equipment, facility support and partnership development seed-funding, where it can be demonstrated that the partnership:

  • Builds on complementary expertise and capabilities;
  • Maximizes the utility and impact of the proposed next generation optical imaging platform;
  • Follows the eligibility principles and distribution of funding requirements detailed above.


There will be no support for studentships or conventional research projects through this initiative. Research project support should be sought through established funding schemes such as Research Grants. Host institutions are encouraged to allocate PhD studentships from their existing Doctoral Training Awards as part of their contribution to the investment, and in alignment with their strategic priorities in the area.


How to apply

Proposals submitted against this call must be costed with Full Economic Costing. You should submit your proposal using the Research Councils’ Joint electronic Submission (Je-S) System.


Applicants should read the Next Generation Optical Microscopy Initiative Application Guidance before preparing their proposal.


Deadline: MRC must receive your application by 4pm on 12th July 2012.


Assessment process

Applications will be assessed by expert peer-review and applicants will be given the chance to respond to reviewers’ comments. Funding decisions will be made by a bespoke expert Assessment Panel including members from across MRC’s Research Boards and also scientific experts in the areas relevant to BBSRC and EPSRC. Please note that only high-level feedback will be provided to applicants following the Panel’s decision.


Assessment Criteria

Panel members will assess each proposal’s ability to meet the call Assessment Criteria; while noting that the focus of individual proposals may vary depending on the nature of investment requested and foundation on which the proposal builds.


1. Importance

  • Does the proposal meet the aims and expectations of the call?
  • Will the proposal add significant value to existing research and infrastructure capabilities?
  • How original is the proposal? Is there similar or complementary research in the UK or elsewhere?


2. Scientific excellence

  • How will the investment be used to underpin groundbreaking advances in understanding complex biological processes?
  • Do the proposed research areas tackle important, timely and tractable research questions in biomedicine and underpinning biology, and connect the best science in the host institutions, and perhaps beyond?
  • Have major scientific, technical or organisational challenges been identified, and will they be tackled well?
  • Where proposals aim to foster inter-disciplinarity and technological innovation, have the applicants detailed robust plans to capitalise on complementary expertise and capabilities?


3. Environment, people and partnership

  • Do the lead applicants have international profiles with a proven track record in cutting-edge optical imaging applied to biomedicine and underpinning biology, and/or aligned disciplines of physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering?
  • Does the proposed team of investigators possess the necessary range of expertise and experience to successfully establish, manage and develop the proposed facility? Is there robust justification for the expertise involved in the project?
  • To what extent will the investment build on existing capability and establish a sustainable centre of excellence in next generation imaging?
  • How will the partnership create an environment to develop and sustain skills and capacity in cutting-edge next generation optical imaging?
  • How strongly does the host institution(s) research strategy integrate and add value to the proposal?
  • Are the partnerships identified strong and mutually beneficial? To what extent will the partnerships add-value to the research and/or help drive technological innovation?


4. Management and sustainability

  • How convincing and coherent is the management strategy proposed?
  • Will the management strategy ensure robust planning for access to equipment and services? Have the applicants considered how access to the facility will be prioritised and granted? Will maximal use and benefit from the requested capital investment be achieved?
  • Is there a clearly defined plan for long-term sustainability of the infrastructure and associated support; including pro-active career development for enabling roles such as technical innovators?


5. Justification of resources requested

  • Is there sufficient financial commitment from the host research organisation and other partners? Do contributions enhance the value for money of the proposal?
  • Have the applicants clearly set out the reasons for requesting the level of staffing and overall resources? Is this adequate and realistic?
  • Does the proposal represent good value for money? Will the facility become self-sustaining beyond the proposed investment?





Launch call

17th May 2012

Submission deadline

12th July 2012

Peer review (external)

August 2012 –October 2012

Applicants’ response

October 2011

Panel meeting

w/b 12th November 2011

Applicants receive notification of outcome

Late November 2011


Applicants will receive notification of the outcome of their proposal shortly after the Panel has met.



For more information also see: Frequently asked questions.


Contact and guidance

All questions relating to the objectives of the call, and the application and award process should be discussed with:


Dr Rhoswyn Walker (MRC Head Office)


Telephone: 0207 395 2228


Where appropriate, additional guidance on specific issues relating to participation and expectations of BBSRC and EPSRC can also be sought through:


Dr Ceri Lyn-Adams (BBSRC)



Dr Helen Hunt (EPSRC)



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