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NIH Grants Go Electronic

Agency begins phasing out paper grant application submissions in favor of electronic process

by Susan R. Morrissey
April 3, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 14

Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey
Credit: Photo by Susan Morrissey

The days of mailing in a grant application to the National Institutes of Health are numbered. By the fall of 2007, the agency will require all competing grant applications to come in electronically, making paper applications obsolete.

The agency is slowly transitioning its grant programs, one at a time, to the electronic submission process. NIH began to move away from paper applications last December, initially selecting smaller grant programs to iron out the process before focusing on the agency's largest grant program, the research project grant program (R01), scheduled for conversion next February.

As the R01 transition date looms, researchers and their institutions, which play a key role in this new process, are concerned about several issues, such as the additional time that will be required to apply electronically, the potential glitches in the system that will negatively impact their applications, and computer platform problems. For its part, NIH is working with all parties to address the concerns and to reassure the community.

"NIH is committed to doing electronic submission of grant applications and to working with principal investigators (PIs) and the institutions to get it done," says Norka Ruiz Bravo, deputy director for extramural research at the agency. "But we're not going to jeopardize our ability to do our job—which is to get these applications in the door, review them, and fund them," she notes.

The new electronic submission process is part of a governmentwide effort to use just one form to apply for federal grants. To that end, NIH will use, a single access point for all grant programs offered by 26 federal agencies. The website allows the research community to search for grant opportunities and apply for them.

The key for NIH PIs is that grant submission into must be done by their institution or another third party, called an authorized organizational representative (AOR). Once the application is submitted to by the AOR, the PI can monitor its progress on the Electronic Research Administration (eRA) Commons, which is the agency's website for its external research community to receive and transmit information about the administration of grants.

To ease this transition, NIH has embarked on numerous outreach activities, such as informational e-mails, continually updated websites, training videos (viewable online), and face-to-face interactions.

Researchers contacted by C&EN were all aware of the changeover, and many noted that it is long overdue, given that agencies such as the National Science Foundation already use electronic submission processes, as do journals.

"NIH has done a good job of informing institutions and grantholders of the transition," says Vern Schramm, professor and chairman of biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "There has been ample time for researchers and institutions to react to the change."

If the number of applications to grant programs already using the electronic process is any indication, the research community appears to be handling the shift well. "The number of applications is not down for any of the grant programs transitioned to date," reports Megan Columbus, NIH program manager for electronic receipt of grant applications. Programs now using electronic submission include the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR), the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR), the Support for Conferences & Scientific Meetings program (R13 and U13), the Research Dissertation Grant program (R36), the Academic Research Enhancement Awards (R15), and Biomedical Research (S10).

According to Columbus, more than 2,500 grants have been applied for electronically, with the bulk of them submitted for the SBIR program, which typically receives 1,800 to 2,000 applications per round. She adds that "the number is actually up for R15's," something she attributes to "outreach specifically to that community to let them know about electronic submission."

One of the most visible issues faced by NIH so far has been the less-than-adequate help desk support, Ruiz Bravo says. She notes that the high volume of questions overwhelmed the agency's help desk and adds that NIH is increasing its support to change that situation.

Another issue affecting application processing is the format of submitted grant files. "One of the biggest mistakes that has been made to date is that PIs are attaching files to that application form that are not PDF files," Columbus says. PDF files are the only file format that NIH will accept, even though, as she points out, will accept many different formats without problem. "This gives people a false sense that they've successfully submitted all parts of their grant," and it isn't until NIH retrieves the grant and does its own checks that an error is posted on eRA Commons for the PI to see, she explains.

Because of the time required for NIH to retrieve, review, and report back to the PI via eRA Commons, PIs have to wait a few extra days after submission before they can relax.

"This is different from the old paradigm where you sweated and sweated to finish the grant, gave it to the FedEx guy, and went off for a well-deserved break," says Paul A. Sheehy, deputy associate director for extramural activities at NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the agency's largest supporter of chemical research. "Now you will still need to sweat until you can see the full grant image on the NIH Commons," he notes.

The benefits of electronic grant applications, however, make the work involved in solving these problems worth it. For instance, the electronic system will help the NIH grant process move more efficiently and help the agency better manage its research portfolio. It will also cut down on the paper coming into the agency and lighten the load of peer reviewers, who will be able to access grant application information electronically.

For institutions responsible for submitting proposals electronically, however, the benefits of this new system will take longer to be realized. "Once this system is improved and enhanced, submission will be easier and tracking will be effortless," says Kim Moreland, director of research and sponsored programs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In the short run, she tells C&EN, the transition will be costly in both time to train people and money to purchase software to handle the submissions.

Jane Zuber, associate vice president at Texas A&M Research Foundation, shares Moreland's assessment. "Right now, submitting a grant electronically is much more time-consuming and much more error-prone than the previous paper process," she says. "We've found that the first submission of an NIH proposal isn't normally acceptable to NIH, so we need additional time" to get all of the information correct, she notes, adding that her office is requesting Texas A&M University faculty to submit their proposals to her office at least one week prior to NIH's due date.

Long-term benefits aside, researchers have several concerns about the new process. Steven D. Munger, University of Maryland assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology, tells C&EN that he worries that "some people will get grants rejected or mishandled in the first few rounds due to technical glitches or innocent mishandling procedures by the PI, the institution, or NIH."

Munger also notes that the new process, which requires PIs to have their completed grant applications to their institutional grants office several days or even weeks before the NIH due date, effectively changes the due date.

The added time to submit an application electronically is something that Richard N. Armstrong, biochemistry and chemistry professor at Vanderbilt University, also sees as an issue, at least in the short term. "Initially, it is likely to add hours to the submission process, at least until the applicants finish riding the learning curve," he notes.

PIs need to account for this additional processing time by starting their applications earlier than they would have with the paper application process, NIH and institution officials agree. "While this goes against every ingrained habit of all of us, this really might be an opportunity where people want to submit their applications early," NIGMS's Sheehy says.

Columbus agrees that PIs shouldn't wait until the last minute to complete their first applications in the new system. Instead, she advocates for PIs to learn about the system through NIH and their own institutional training and to allow more time for applying. She also advises PIs to carefully read all instructions before applying.

As for handling any problems that come up, researchers and institutions in the community are confident that NIH will be able to work them out. "My experience with NIH leads me to believe that they will be flexible with any problems and correct them promptly," Armstrong notes.

Likewise, Zuber says that "NIH has listened and responded to researchers' and universities' concerns." This is evidenced by the delay in the electronic transition of the R01 grants from October to February 2007 and by the shift in submission deadline to 5 PM local time, she points out.

Moreland notes that NIH's decision to delay the R01 transition is very helpful, because institutions like hers still need time to work on issues such as training faculty to use the necessary software, supporting university Macintosh users in a system running on a PC platform, and dealing with the large volume of proposals that will be coming in. "At this point, every month we have to develop solutions is a distinct advantage," she says.

"I am encouraged the process will get easier for researchers, and we will look on this transition as a bump in the road to a more efficient proposal-processing system," Zuber says.



NIH's electronic submission website.

Training resources, including videos, and training demos for using the eRA Commons and

Tips and Tools, including a list of most common causes of rejected applications:


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