Q&A: NSF looks to the FastLane for Grants

George Strawn, National Science Foundation CIO

When the Office of Management and Budget, in the fiscal 2007 budget request last February, named three consortia to lead the Grants Line of Business initiative, it marked a clear direction for the program. Agencies will have to use one of three shared-services providers for grants management systems or justify to OMB their rationale for building their own systems.

OMB estimates agencies spent about $144 million in 2005 on development, modernization and enhancement of grant management systems. OMB expects agencies to begin choosing their grant providers by late 2006 or early 2007.

With the three consortia just getting off the ground this year, GCN asked program managers from the Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to describe their focus and how they are different from each other.

GCN: What type of grants is NSF focusing on?

GEORGE STRAWN: NSF funds research and education in most fields of science and engineering. It does this through grants to and cooperative agreements with more than 2,000 colleges, universities, K-12 school systems, businesses, informal science organizations and other research institutions throughout the United States. NSF accounts for about one-fourth of all federal support to academic institutions for basic research.

GCN: How are you differentiating yourself from the other consortia?

STRAWN: The NSF consortium goal is to offer common solutions to meet the needs of the consortium partners involved in the federal research enterprise. This means deploying IT services that prioritize feasibility in the near term, while promoting reusability and scalability in the mid-to-long term. Given NSF’s research mission, the consortium is characterized by receipt of proposals that identify designated Principal Investigators (PIs) and co-PIs, high volume of transactions, discretionary awards, and use of a merit review process that relies extensively on experts from both inside and outside government.

NSF receives virtually all of its 41,000 proposals electronically as well as receiving 190,000 reviews electronically. NSF also conducts all post-award notifications, requests and project reports electronically via FastLane. In fiscal 2005, utilizing FastLane and our financial system, NSF processed over 16,000 electronic cash requests and over 1,600 electronic quarterly financial reports, and distributed $4 billion of funds.

In addition to the above grants management services, NSF offers exemplary support functions. NSF has invested in project management methodologies, operates a first-rate help desk that services 100,000 calls per year, and provides extensive and easy-to-use documentation for use by its customers.

GCN: When do you hope to start providing grants management services? What still needs to be done between now and then?

STRAWN: The next steps for NSF are to complete a business case and operations concept for serving as a consortium lead, and to pilot a grants management service offering for another research agency.

By fall 2006, NSF plans to pilot an enhancement to the FastLane Proposal Status Service. Utilizing the Federal E-Authentication initiative, the pilot will allow grant applicants of a partner agency to check on the status of their proposals, as well as any proposals the applicant submitted to NSF. Both the business case and the pilot are scheduled to be completed by fall 2006. Based on the results of these initiatives, NSF will identify other service offerings that may be of interest to other research agencies.

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