The federal government is quickly moving toward a paperless system, and research funding agencies are leading the way as they shift the administration of grants onto the Internet.
In fact, by October, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will require all researchers to submit grant applications via FastLane (www.fastlane.nsf.gov/)--its computerized grant administration system on the World Wide Web. FastLane will also handle all other aspects of the grant system, from grant reviews to grant awards. Other funding agencies are following a couple of years behind.
The government's ultimate goal is to create a single Web site--called the Federal Commons--where researchers can handle all their grant application needs related to any federal funding agency. Putting the grant-review system on the Internet has been guided in part by the Government Paperwork Elimination Act, which requires all government transactions to be conducted electronically by October 2003. And a newer piece of proposed legislation would push that up to late 2001, though it's unlikely all federal funding agencies will be ready that quickly.
The computerized systems should not only streamline the process and reduce costs for the funding agencies, but should make the grant-application process easier for researchers, says Craig Robinson, PhD, FastLane project leader at NSF. When applying for a new grant, researchers will be able to use information about themselves and their institutions already recorded in the agency's computer system. They will also be able to track their applications every step of the way, from submission to award and even postaward.
Several NSF directorates--mathematics and physics, primarily--began testing out the system more than a year ago.
"We're getting positive feedback from researchers who have begun using the system," says Robinson.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has also begun to pilot test its electronic research administration system--called the NIH Commons (www-commons.cit.nih.gov). In 1999, it signed up 65 research institutions to begin using the system for a portion of grant applications, and this year that number has climbed to more than 120.
And although it's not yet within the NIH master plan to make using the system mandatory, that day will certainly come, says George Stone, PhD, chief of the NIH Commons, Extramural Inventions and Technology Resources Branch within the NIH Office of the Director.