Grants.gov, the U.S. government's central grants portal, has emerged as an important tool for the U.S. research community. Grants.gov is a repository for information on all federal grant-funding programs, and an increasing number of agencies now require applicants to use Grants.gov's standard online application forms and to apply through Grants.gov. The goal is to create a single, consistent infrastructure for applying for federal grants.
But for years--in some cases as long as a decade--National Science Foundation-funded researchers have been using NSF's FastLane system to apply for and manage NSF grants. The addition of Grants.gov means that many researchers and research administrators now contend with two federal online grant application systems. And although it's not an ideal situation, researchers and research administrators say they can live with it.
Grants.gov is a result of the U.S. government's early initiatives in electronic government. In 1999, Congress passed the Federal Financial Assistance Management Improvement Act (also known as Public Law 106-107), which required the federal government to simplify the way it managed its grant programs. The law called on agencies to apply electronic technology to make the process of applying for federal grants simpler and more uniform.
Grants.gov, which launched in 2002, was the law's most visible consequence. Behind the scenes, Grants.gov is a consortium of 26 grant-offering agencies (including NSF) that contribute funds, and sometimes staff, to keep the site operational. For people seeking grants, Grants.gov is the go-to Web site for federal-government-wide grant announcements and applications. In November 2003, the Office of Management and Budget began requiring agencies to post their funding announcements on Grants.gov, and within 2 years, the vast majority had complied. From June 2005 through August 2006, NSF posted all 259 of its funding announcements--about $7 billion worth--on Grants.gov.
In operation since 1995, NSF's FastLane allows the NSF community to apply for grants, review proposals, and manage grant-related financial matters. For the vast majority of its opportunities, NSF offers applicants the choice of Grants.gov or FastLane for submitting applications. NSF has taken steps to encourage and enable the use of Grants.gov; in the past 2 years, NSF has reserved a few programs for applications using Grants.gov alone and written a comprehensive 62-page manual for submitting grant applications through Grants.gov.
Despite these efforts, NSF grant applicants have voted with their feet--or maybe fingers makes for a better metaphor. NSF's annual report on compliance with Public Law 106-107 shows that from June 2005 through August 2006, NSF received 705 proposals via Grants.gov, just 1.3% of the more than 55,000 proposals NSF received. The rest were submitted using FastLane.
George Strawn, chief information officer at NSF, says that NSF and research institutions have a long-term stake in FastLane. "We started working on it 20 years ago [and] basically finished with FastLane by the year 2000," Strawn says. Moreover, "we enticed our community to learn FastLane 12 years ago." Strawn calls FastLane "the pathfinder for Grants.gov."
Grants.gov and NSF still need to resolve some issues, Strawn says, such as handling proposals from multiple organizations, for which NSF still requires FastLane. Nonetheless, he believes that eventually there will be a common electronic grants application system. "I can envision the day when Grants.gov will be fully implemented and fully working and will be the standard solution," Strawn says. NSF is also coordinating with Grants.gov and other agencies on what the government calls the Grants Management Line of Business, an initiative to improve all grants-related business processes. Thanks in part to its long experience with FastLane, NSF is a senior partner.
-Alan Kotok, Sciencemag.org