NIH details plan for online grants

The National Institutes of Health last week outlined a plan to automate the receipt of grant applications from researchers and the distribution of those applications to review panels.

The plan described to a panel of scientists and grants managers from universities and research institutions is part of an agencywide effort to streamline its paper-intensive process for dispensing more than $8 billion in grants annually. Joellen Harper assistant grants policy officer with NIH told the group that sorting thousands of applications and duplicating them for reviewers takes up nearly 80 percent of the time the agency spends handling this paperwork. "You can see it's a big chunk of time in the overall process " Harper said of the up-front management of grant requests. By automating many of the steps involved NIH could reduce the nine months or longer that it currently takes to award grants.

NIH is among 33 federal grant-making agencies that are developing ways to automate the funding-approval process. Linda Berkoff project manager for the Interagency Electronic Grants Committee a task force led by the General Services Administration said federal science agencies including NIH are creating a model for how to present a "single face" to grant recipients.

"[The agencies] are biting the bullet for doing [electronic commerce] standards" for transmitting grant information Berkoff said. "They really do work together very well."

The researchers and grant administrators who attended last week's meeting agree these initiatives will reduce the time spent on paperwork. But they also said NIH needs to allay concerns that the research community has about the data security and interoperability of future systems.

"I've seen us do things collaboratively " said Barbara Siegel director of research and sponsored research programs at Northwestern University and chairwoman of the Federal Demonstration Partnership a group of 81 federal agencies and research institutions that are working on a common approach to grants administration. "I want to make sure we end up with a common face to government."

Diana Jaeger director of NIH's Division of Grants Policy said NIH's automation initiative called Electronic Research Administration (ERA) is applying information technology to improve its internal procedures and to streamline its interactions with the public. With the World Wide Web as a common interface NIH aims to create a system that is usable by large and small institutions connecting through a variety of platforms.

Automating the "receipt and referral" process is among NIH's top priorities according to a status report on ERA published last spring. Two parts of NIH the Office of Extramural Research and the Center for Scientific Review recently recommended a dozen steps for streamlining their procedures including:

* accepting basic application information such as cover pages budget data and project abstracts electronically

* scanning applications and distributing them in digital form and

* automating referrals of applications to the proper scientific review panels and developing tools to help researchers choose who should judge their requests.

Although NIH has no timetable for this new process yet the agency is beginning to roll out other components of its ERA initiative. Early in the fiscal year NIH will deploy a Web-based interface for the Computer Retrieval of Information on Scientific Projects which will let the public for the first time search the full text of research project abstracts.

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