For the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the migration from paper grant applications to the electronic variety--scheduled for 5 February 2007--is a major undertaking. Since August 2005, NIH has been moving some of its smaller grant programs, including Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Awards (R21), Academic Research Enhancement Award Grants (R15), and Small Research Grants (R03) from paper to electronic applications.

But the R01 is the big enchilada. In fiscal year 2006, which ended on 30 September 2006, NIH received more than 22,000 proposals for new R01 grants, which alone accounted for nearly half (48%) of all competitive research project grant proposals (including continuations and supplements) received by NIH. Neither NIH nor Grants.gov is saying precisely how much they expect the electronic traffic to increase, but the anticipated volumes are still significant. Extrapolating from past traffic indicates that the number of electronic applications NIH receives before the 5 February deadline should be almost twice the volume received on any previous date. The total volume for the month of February, we estimate, should exceed the volume of any previous month by about a factor of 3.

In part 1 of this series, we explained the new process for NIH's electronic R01 grant applications, including the role of Grants.gov and the multistage registration process. This week, we report how NIH and Grants.gov are preparing for this major change in procedure and the increased volume of new electronic traffic. We also ask four universities how they are preparing for the February deadline and how they have fared so far in the registration process and with other NIH electronic grant applications.

Bring it on

For its part, NIH says it is ready for the transition from paper to electronic data, thanks to the preparations the agency has made. "The upcoming electronic submission of R01s likely will set new submission records at both Grants.gov and ERA Commons," says Norka Ruiz Bravo, director of NIH's Office of Extramural Research and NIH deputy director for extramural research, in a November 2006 NIH Newsletter. "To handle this anticipated increased demand, we have changed our standard receipt dates for applications so that we spread the workloads on systems within NIH and within the business offices of applicant institutions. The receipt-date changes, in combination with recent system-performance improvements, have minimized capacity concerns, and we are well positioned to handle the increased load."

Because of the magnitude of the changes in procedure, NIH is showing a little flexibility on deadlines, at least early on. NIH would like to receive an error-free grant application by the official deadline. But because many institutions are new to the electronic application process, NIH will extend the deadline by five business days to allow submitters to correct errors reported by Grants.gov and its own ERA Commons. Submitters cannot, however, use this period to change the substance of their proposals.

According to Megan Columbus, program manager for the electronic grant application project, NIH is preparing for the transition by increasing the staffing of its help desk (and preparing to make additional staff available at peak times), increasing the training that help-desk staff receive, creating a Web-ticketing system, and establishing new procedures to assist help-desk staff deal more efficiently with the increased volume of questions.

Columbus adds that help-desk call volume has declined since NIH first implemented electronic grant applications. She attributes the decline to improvements in how NIH's computers evaluate incoming applications, improved error messages, general debugging, and NIH's outreach and training efforts. Columbus says that NIH has also added new application servers, database processors, and memory to exceed the needs of the anticipated traffic. She says that with these capacity increases (and tuning of the software), NIH can process "hundreds of applications each hour."

Michael Pellegrino, a management analyst with Grants.gov, provided no technical details about changes in his organization's plans for handling the increased traffic flow. He did, however, say that Grants.gov has "trained additional personnel on Grants.gov subject-matter calls. During times of increased volume, additional agents man the phones to provide efficient service." Grants.gov's contact center is run by a commercial contractor.

Universities getting ready


Charlie Hathaway

Research administrators we interviewed at four institutions say that their universities have invested in time, technology, and training to prepare for the February deadline. Terri Hall, associate director of pre-award in the Office of Research at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, says her office began working on electronic grant applications soon after Public Law 106-107--which encouraged agencies to accept electronic applications--passed in 1999. Charlie Hathaway, director of the Office of Grant Support at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, has worked on NIH's electronic grant application requirements for about 18 months. Pam Plotkin, assistant vice president for research and director of sponsored programs at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) in Johnson City, invested 2 years in getting ready for electronic grant applications. "I knew that the electronic transition would occur and that we had a lot to learn in our office and by our researchers. So I started real early."

An important part of all the universities' preparations is getting their research faculty members ready for the change. "They can't live in isolation on this," says Hathaway, referring to the Albert Einstein researchers. "They have no choice but to buy in to it. I made a decision to shield them from nothing. I wanted them to know everything." Hall noted that "initially, they [the Notre Dame faculty] were very frustrated because it was another system that they had to learn, and with any new system there were bugs that had to be worked out." Grants.gov's weak support for non-Windows platforms was an issue at Notre Dame, Hall says.

Pam Plotkin

Plotkin, Hathaway, and Andrew Shepard--Shepard is associate manager for research administration at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in Durham--all say they have worked hard to train their research faculty members on electronic grant applications at NIH and the other federal agencies. ETSU, says Plotkin, already faced an earlier deadline when NIH's R15s (for which only institutions that receive less than $3 million per year from NIH are eligible to apply) switched over to electronic submission in June. To prepare for this deadline, Plotkin says, she held monthly workshops teaching researchers how to download the electronic (PureEdge) forms, complete them offline, and submit the grant applications. The workshops were mandatory for anyone intending to submit a grant application to NIH. "There was no resistance" from ETSU researchers, says Plotkin. "They were very thankful afterward." Leading up to the R01 deadline, she has increased the frequency of the training from monthly to weekly.

Andrew Shepard

At Albert Einstein, Hathaway holds classes weekly for researchers and administrators. The classes aren't mandatory, but they are well-attended. "It's a hands-on class," says Hathaway. "We want people to get a feel for how the PureEdge software works, to make them comfortable with a new way of doing things." Albert Einstein, Hathaway adds, is preparing its faculty to deal with "the very basic difference between paper and electronic ways of submitting applications. Then they'll be able to adapt to any electronic system." Albert Einstein's researchers have been cooperative. "Most of the faculty see a parallel between Grants.gov and submitting articles to journals. To them, uploading [documents] in PDF format is no big deal."

At UNH, Shepard says, faculty members decide for themselves how much or how little they want to be involved in the proposal-development process. He says UNH encourages its faculty to get trained in the PureEdge system. The university then divides the work between administrators and faculty. "We will start [a proposal] administratively," says Shepard, "then send it to faculty to fill in the programmatic parts." It is "good for faculty to look at it and play with it to get a sense of what's involved."

A different solution at Notre Dame

Terri Hall

Notre Dame used the switch to electronic submission as an opportunity to make fundamental changes in how it prepares and submits grant applications. The conversion to electronic submission "gave us an opportunity to review all of our business processes," Hall says. "After talking to other universities, we found a university"--Texas A&M--"with a whole new business model. They were providing the administration portions of grant applications for their faculty." Notre Dame decided to emulate Texas A&M's approach, centralizing administrative functions like finding, filling, and submitting the forms so that their researchers can focus on science.

"At first we thought we didn't have the manpower," Hall notes, but Notre Dame discovered that by centralizing the administrative functions they would be freed from some of the problems they expected to encounter if the burden were spread to the faculty. Centralization will also position the university to transition from the PureEdge software to system-to-system delivery of grant applications. That transition is scheduled for midyear.

UNH also intends to implement a system-to-system delivery method, but UNH will use a third-party service rather than building the system itself. A major benefit of the new system, says Shepard, is that "it will do the validation of proposals before submission, to make sure we have all of the criteria met for Grants.gov and the primary sponsor." With the PureEdge system, validation occurs after submission. UNH plans to transition to the outside service over the course of 2007.

Help from your peers

A useful resource for research administrators and researchers who can't avoid involvement in proposal development is the Research Administrators Listserve (RESADM-L), operated by Health Research Inc. List members can post questions, share experiences, and get advice on solving problems. The list has (as of January 2007) more than 2300 members. You can sign up on the Health Research Inc. site.

Electronic grant applications: The story so far

A few problems were encountered early on, but so far things have gone well at all four universities. UNH experienced a problem with Grants.gov in setting up transactions through its outside service provider. Grants.gov, apparently, dropped UNH's DUNS number from its registration rolls. Shepard resolved the problem by posting a request on the RESADM-L (researcher administrators) listserve (see sidebar) and got help from an administrator at another institution that had experienced a similar problem.

Notre Dame and Albert Einstein both submitted applications for NIH's Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Awards (R21) and Small Research Grants (R03) that switched to electronic applications in June 2006. Albert Einstein, Hathaway says, has submitted some 60 R21s and R03s and all have gone through, about half reaching ERA Commons with no errors. Notre Dame has had similar experiences with R21s and R03s. "The submissions went relatively well," notes Hall. "There were some issues identified, but staying in contact with other universities through the RESADM-L listserve, we discovered these issues in advance. We knew what to look for."

Plotkin says ETSU also had satisfactory recent experiences--in her case mostly with electronic R15 applications--but there were some start-up problems. Their first batch of applications in February 2006 encountered errors that took days, and in some cases weeks, to figure out. "We weren't alone," says Plotkin. "Key bits of information were left out of the NIH guide. There were also bugs in the NIH and Grants.gov systems." By the next deadline, in June, ETSU had a better experience: All eight of their R15 applications went through error-free. UNH, says Shepard, submitted two electronic applications to NIH in November 2006, and both made it through. One proposal received a warning ("nonfatal" error), but there were no other problems.

NIH drew praise for doing a good job in helping prepare the research community for this transition. "I cannot say enough about how NIH is helping, with training, guidelines, and having people available to answer questions," says Hathaway.

But some issues remain, and not all of them are technical. In recent review cycles, some reviewers got to see R01 proposals submitted in paper form alongside, e.g., R15 proposals submitted electronically. The visual difference, some say, is striking. "It will be interesting to see how reviewers are affected," says Hathaway. "Applicants have to anticipate the possible impact."

Shepard urges researchers and research administrators to submit proposals "a couple of days early for validation." You can run into all kinds of unforeseen problems, he says, and having a little cushion can make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Still, "there are a lot of good things for electronic submission," says Plotkin. "Time saving, paper savings. We still print them out but don't have to send out multiple copies. No longer do we have to chase the FedEx truck on Friday afternoon."

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700007

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Careers.
10.1126/science.caredit.a0700007