NSF's electronic signature pilot: How it works

The National Science Foundation is working with the Federal Demonstration Partnership to conduct an electronic signature pilot for processing research proposals and awards.

In addition to testing its method for accepting and securing electronic signatures from universities, NSF hopes to help promote a standard way of processing grants governmentwide.

During the tests, university officials will obtain certification online in lieu of sending in a signed cover page, said Jerry Stuck, deputy director of the information systems division at NSF.

The university will store information about the date, time and user ID to tie the event to the actual submission. Using those logs, NSF will be able to monitor whether and when it receives certification for the proposals.

At the universities, electronic signatures will eliminate the back-and-forth routing between the central research office and the researchers themselves, said Barbara Siegel, executive director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at Northwestern University and chairwoman of the Federal Demonstration Partnership.

An earlier program required universities to scan proposal cover sheets, create portable document format files and send them electronically, which was good for NSF but introduced added expenses for scanners and new routing processes at the universities, she said.

Following a letter from the FDP to NSF voicing concerns about scanning, the agency proposed the electronic signature pilot in March.

Parallel with the electronic signature pilot, NSF also will run a more streamlined pilot that would not require the researcher to return to the central research office to sign the cover sheet, Siegel said. That will improve the routing of proposals and will place final responsibility for the proposal on a university's central research office.

Siegel said she hopes other federal agencies will adopt these processes to provide universities that do business with multiple agencies a common way to submit proposals or a central point for dealing with government.

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