Grants.gov, the U.S. government's central grants portal, has emerged as an important tool for the U.S. research community. Grants.gov is a repository for information on all federal grant-funding programs, and an increasing number of agencies now require applicants to use Grants.gov's standard online application forms and to apply through Grants.gov. The goal is to create a single, consistent infrastructure for applying for federal grants.

But for years--in some cases as long as a decade--National Science Foundation-funded researchers have been using NSF's FastLane system to apply for and manage NSF grants. The addition of Grants.gov means that many researchers and research administrators now contend with two federal online grant application systems. And although it's not an ideal situation, researchers and research administrators say they can live with it.

Make government grants simpler and more uniform

Grants.gov is a result of the U.S. government's early initiatives in electronic government. In 1999, Congress passed the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act (also known as Public Law 106-107), which required the federal government to simplify the way it managed its grant programs. The law called on agencies to apply electronic technology to make the process of applying for federal grants simpler and more uniform.

Grants.gov, which launched in 2002, was the law's most visible consequence. Behind the scenes, Grants.gov is a consortium of 26 grant-offering agencies (including NSF) that contribute funds, and sometimes staff, to keep the site operational. For people seeking grants, Grants.gov is the go-to Web site for federal-government-wide grant announcements and applications. In November 2003, the Office of Management and Budget began requiring agencies to post their funding announcements on Grants.gov, and within 2 years, the vast majority had complied. From June 2005 through August 2006, NSF posted all 259 of its funding announcements--about $7 billion worth--on Grants.gov.

Announcements of funding opportunities, however, are only the starting point of the life cycle of grants and the most visible part of what Grants.gov offers. Grants.gov also provides a standard electronic grant application for federal agencies, as well as a single registration point for submitting those applications. But while listing grants on Grants.gov is required, when it comes to processing applications, agencies are allowed to offer applicants a choice. Agencies must offer applicants the option of applying through Grants.gov, but they can also offer agency-specific application methods and systems--such as NSF's FastLane.

Voting with their fingers

In operation since 1995, NSF's FastLane allows the NSF community to apply for grants, review proposals, and manage grant-related financial matters. For the vast majority of its opportunities, NSF offers applicants the choice of Grants.gov or FastLane for submitting applications. NSF has taken steps to encourage and enable the use of Grants.gov; in the past 2 years, NSF has reserved a few programs for applications using Grants.gov alone and written a comprehensive 62-page manual for submitting grant applications through Grants.gov.

Despite these efforts, NSF grant applicants have voted with their feet--or maybe fingers makes for a better metaphor. NSF's annual report on compliance with Public Law 106-107 shows that from June 2005 through August 2006, NSF received 705 proposals via Grants.gov, just 1.3% of the more than 55,000 proposals NSF received. The rest were submitted using FastLane.

The preference for FastLane isn't hard to understand. Like other agencies that use Grants.gov, NSF imposes administrative burdens beyond those required by Grants.gov. If they want to apply for NSF grants through Grants.gov, organizations need to register with both agencies. NSF has extra forms that funding prospects may need to complete, in addition to Grants.gov's government-wide SF-424 (R&R) application. NSF requires that proposals involving more than one organization be submitted only through FastLane, ruling out Grants.gov for a fraction of NSF proposals. And--perhaps most important of all--researchers in NSF's community are accustomed to FastLane. Grants.gov is still something new to learn.

Keeping FastLane, for now

NSF cooperates with Grants.gov on a range of grant-related matters: NSF posts all of its announcements on Grants.gov, allows applicants to apply for funding through Grants.gov, uses the same government-wide electronic authentication program as Grants.gov, and is working with Grants.gov to develop better grants-management electronic tools beyond announcements and applications. But when it comes to accepting electronic applications, the agency is in no hurry to leave the FastLane.


George Strawn (courtesy, National Science Foundation)

George Strawn, chief information officer at NSF, says that NSF and research institutions have a long-term stake in FastLane. "We started working on it 20 years ago [and] basically finished with FastLane by the year 2000," Strawn says. Moreover, "we enticed our community to learn FastLane 12 years ago." Strawn calls FastLane "the pathfinder for Grants.gov."

Grants.gov and NSF still need to resolve some issues, Strawn says, such as handling proposals from multiple organizations, for which NSF still requires FastLane. Nonetheless, he believes that eventually there will be a common electronic grants application system. "I can envision the day when Grants.gov will be fully implemented and fully working and will be the standard solution," Strawn says. NSF is also coordinating with Grants.gov and other agencies on what the government calls the Grants Management Line of Business, an initiative to improve all grants-related business processes. Thanks in part to its long experience with FastLane, NSF is a senior partner.

For researchers and administrators, familiarity breeds contentment

Rosemary Ruff, director of research support and sponsored programs at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, has used FastLane almost from its beginning. "I watched it from its infancy," says Ruff, "and even in its infancy, it was a wonderful thing." Ruff says that most of the faculty at University of Arkansas use the electronic applications systems. "My PIs [prefer] FastLane," she says. "They've been using it for years. It's that simple."

Ruff's office also uses Grants.gov for electronic grant applications, but opinions are mixed. "We hear a lot of grumps and complaints" about Grants.gov, says Ruff, "but also some good things." Ruff says that research faculty members, when confronted with Grants.gov, often tell her, "I don't have time to learn a new piece of software." Another factor giving FastLane an edge, Ruff says, is cross-platform compatibility. Users with Macintosh and other non-Windows systems have had problems with Grants.gov. FastLane, on the other hand, supports Windows, Macs, and Unix/Linux systems.


Margarita Cardona

Nonetheless, says Ruff, Grants.gov has its benefits. "An advantage of Grants.gov is you don't have to be hooked to the server. With Grants.gov, you can work comfortably at your desktop, then send [the finished proposal] to us at the sponsored programs office" for transmittal to Grants.gov. FastLane requires the user to be online with the system in real time.

Margarita Cardona, senior grants and contracts manager at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), also uses both FastLane and Grants.gov. She and her staff support FastLane and Grants.gov. They conduct training sessions for researchers on both systems, and the university's IT department supports both systems. And she and her researcher-clients prefer FastLane. "The PIs are more comfortable with the system," says Cardona, "and they do not have any fears about it." As at the University of Arkansas, PIs at UMBC fill out most of the online grant applications themselves before research administrators review, complete, and submit the final applications. NSF's FastLane is very familiar, Cardona says, whereas "Grants.gov is still something foreign."

But Cardona is upbeat about Grants.gov. "Grants.gov is not as painful as some people imagine," she says. UMBC makes plenty of use of its electronic-application features, having filed electronic applications recently with the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Cardona is even more upbeat about electronic grants proposals in general: "We prefer electronic applications over making 20 copies" of paper applications.

When NSF started FastLane in the 1990s, Ruff says, she encountered many of the same reactions from researchers that she is now hearing about Grants.gov. "The issues are the same, but different," she says. "You have the same kind of issues, just reflected in a different way."

Join a discussion on Science Careers Forum about the issues raised in this article.

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Science Careers and author of three books on electronic business.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700034

Alan Kotok is managing editor of Careers.
10.1126/science.caredit.a0700034