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Science Careers Blog

May 4, 2009

GAO: More Consistency Needed in Recovery Act Grant Procedures

Science Careers editor Jim Austin reported on this blog on 29 April about the struggle Grants.gov faces from the sharp increase in grant applications to NIH and other agencies, because of the 2009 stimulus bill (officially: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). That same day the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's watchdog agency, published a report critical of agencies and Grants.gov for issuing a confusing set of submission policies and procedures, which could lead to differing treatment of applications for grants issued under the stimulus bill.

Grants.gov serves as the central U.S. government portal for funding announcements, registrar for people and organizations seeking government grants, and the initial recipient of the electronic grant applications. This vital service to agencies giving grants and people or organizations seeking grants is an unusual government entity. While ostensibly under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), it operates as a consortium of 26 grant-making agencies and is funded by contributions from those agencies. Its staff consists of people detailed for short periods of time from federal agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services hosts Grants.gov on its computers.

As Austin pointed out, Grants.gov's systems were not engineered for the high volume of applications expected from the large funding increases in the stimulus bill. GAO's report noted that on 9 March, OMB warned federal agencies that the volume of traffic on Grants.gov was exceeding its capacity to such an extent that it posed a serious risk to implementation of the stimulus bill. OMB authorized agencies, from April through August 2009, to accept grant applications outside of Grants.gov, through their own electronic systems, fax, e-mail, and postal mail.

GAO found that as a result of this flexibility, the various agencies enacted widely different application procedures, often varying from one grant program to another even within the same agency.  Environmental Protection Agency, for example, generally allows hard-copy or e-mail grant applications. NIH, however, which invested heavily in all-electronic application systems (see our article What You Need to Know about Electronic R01 Submissions), told GAO that accepting hard-copy or even e-mail applications would be "incredibly impractical."

The GAO found a number of practices, some not directly related to the stimulus bill, that confuse rather than simplify the application process:

  • Grants.gov sometimes accepts grant applications after agencies close their applications.  NIH, for example, has a 5:00 pm deadline, but Grants.gov continues to accept those applications until midnight, putting applicants in a position where they can receive a confirmation of on-time submission to Grants.gov, but a late notice from NIH.
  • Agencies have varying definitions of "meeting the deadline." Most of the agencies responding to GAO's survey consider a timely submission as one that is accepted by Grants.gov.  However, 1 in 6 agencies say Grants.gov has to first validate the submission--i.e., make sure it meets initial technical requirements, a process that can take up to 48 hours--before considering it an on-time application. E-mail and hard-copy applications are not subject to Grants.gov validation, and would thus have one less hurdle than those sent through Grants.gov.
  • Agencies have different ways of notifying applicants about whether their submissions are late or on-time. About half of the agencies say they let applicants know soon after the deadline if their applications are late, but some 13 percent wait until the grant is awarded or don't bother notifying late applicants. E-mail and hard copy submissions have no-built-in methods for acknowledging successful receipt of applications.
  • Agencies have different criteria and methods for handling appeals of applications deemed late.
GAO found one of the biggest problems causing delays is the complex Grants.gov registration procedure, which can take up to two weeks, as opposed to the 3-5 business days  advertised on the Grants.gov site. Another problem is the need for a case number to appeal a late submission for technical issues on Grants.gov; but what do you do if one of those issues is that you aren't given a case number?

GAO said this report, provided in a letter to a senator and three members of Congress, focused on providing the office's initial observations on the problem. GAO expects to issue a more detailed and systemic report in June.

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