Electronic submission of proposals has been a great leap forward for consistency and ultimately streamlining interaction with the US government with respect to grant applications. However, for all the good it has wrought, electronic submission has brought with it a new set of problems that didn’t exist in the days of paper applications. In the paper days of yore, PIs and their staff had to be good copy editors; reviewing every page of every copy of a proposal to ensure that the quality of the printing or photocopying was sufficient, that no pages were skipped or out of place; measuring margins, checking vertical lines per inch, confirming the number of characters per inch. And all that rushing to make the last FedEx®/UPS® deadline – or calling a courier – or flying to Washington, DC – to deliver the box with the requisite number of copies. Those were the good old days!
Electronic submission (eSubmission) has largely freed us from these concerns; however, it brings with it a new set of challenges. In the good old days, the deadline we all worried about was usually the last FedEx®/UPS® run the night before the due date. In the brave new world of eSubmission, the deadline we focus on is the day and time the agency publishes as the last moment for receipt via Grants.gov.
As we all know, that is not a good approach because myriad things can go wrong at the last moment in our internet-based world. System problems at Grants.gov or the agency, loss of campus internet access, institutional network issues, server problems, and software glitches all loom large as potential concerns. While NIH continues to be very accommodating with respect to deadlines in the face of severe weather or disasters, other agencies typically are not. For example, standard language for the Department of Energy with respect to submission deadlines is:
You are encouraged to transmit your application well before the deadline. APPLICATIONS RECEIVED AFTER THE DEADLINE WILL NOT BE REVIEWED OR CONSIDERED FOR AWARD.
Generally, the agency’s perspective is that applicants should submit their proposals sufficiently in advance to accommodate any technical or other problems that may arise and they do not allow for late submissions. While encouraging faculty to submit proposals early has always been a goal to help the sponsored programs office staff to provide good service, in these days of eSubmission, this goal has taken on a new urgency. Now, in addition to the PI and research administration staff, there are IT systems and staff that are involved in getting a proposal to the agency on time.
Among the new anxieties introduced by eSubmission as implemented via Grants.gov are those due to the forms-based approach settled on when Grants.gov was created. There are merits to a forms-based approach – in particular, the fact that the user need not be connected to the internet in real time to work on a proposal. This was the driving force behind the decision to implement a forms-based solution, originally PureEdge then later Adobe forms, rather than a web-based solution.
For universities and other research-intensive organizations submitting research grant proposals, the disadvantages of a forms-based approach far outweigh its advantages. Managing electronic forms is arguably trickier than managing the paper forms used previously. Who is editing it now? Where is the latest version? Are all the changes incorporated? Did everyone use a supported version of Adobe to open the package? In the paper-based world, the usual question was more likely to be where is the application and is it approved yet? The electronic form-based package can work well in a small organization or a highly structured one, but is far from ideal in a typical academic research environment.
System-to-System (S2S) to the rescue! Grants.gov realized from the start that this might be the case and developed an alternate submission path that allowed for institutions to implement their own systems to collect and submit proposal data bypassing the actual forms. InfoEd Global stepped up to the plate and, along with other vendors and some institutions, developed an S2S system that allows for a web-based institutional process for gathering the requisite proposal information plus the ability to submit it directly to an alternate set of servers at Grants.gov through a secured mechanism. The result is that proposals submitted using the forms-based package and those submitted via S2S look exactly the same after receipt at Grants.gov. Regardless of whether an agency retrieves raw data from Grants.gov in addition to or in lieu of a grant image, there is no demonstrable difference between the data retrieved due to the method of submission.
S2S methodology, however, is not automatically a panacea. It is tricky to provide a sufficiently flexible interface to support the data collection idiosyncrasies of various clients including universities, hospitals, research institutes, PUIs, etc.
Supporting our clients, InfoEd Global participates with the Federal Demonstration Project (FDP) Electronic Research Administration committee in collaborating with Grants.gov toward improvement in eSubmission systems and processes. Among the priorities of this partnership are:
- Eliminating redundant forms/schemas
- Improving management of expired form versions and associated schemas
- Working toward a data driven model rather than a form driven approach in handling personnel, performance sites, and other conditions where there are one-to-many relationships between a proposal and its data.
- Enhanced error and warning validation methods
Looking ahead, there are some exciting things happening. NIH is currently wrapping up design and heading into development of a web-based system to support submission of complex proposals – program projects, SCORs, centers and the like. The system will include an S2S portal making it possible for InfoEd Global clients to build and submit complex applications electronically as they do R01s today. InfoEd’s v13 budget project is being developed with an eye toward fully supporting submission of complex NIH applications. NIH’s target for piloting electronic submission of P01s is Summer 2012 – so stay tuned!
InfoEd Global is also closely monitoring opportunities for S2S-based application submission for government agencies outside the US and for non-governmental sponsors. For example, the UK Je-S platform and electronic systems used or under development by the Australian NMHRC and Canadian NSERC and South African NRF are all on our radar screens. While we try to keep abreast of developments broadly, we also rely on our clients to keep us aware of opportunities as they become aware. If you are aware of any interest or activity by sponsoring organizations toward supporting system-to-system submission of proposal data, please let us know!