the Way to an NIH Grant
Hadar and John McGowan
February 8, 1999
decades, scientists accepted the yearlong wait to get a grant from
the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They figured it was the
price to pay for being sure their application got a thorough peer
review, the basis for determining who gets funded.
But at the close of the 20th century, waiting a year to get a government
grant seems as dated as car fins.
So, when Vice President Al Gore made NIH a reinvention lab, NIH
began thinking about renovating its business practices, especially
harnessing the power of electronic data transfer. Building an electronic
grants application system is part of the Vice President's vision
of electronic government in his report, Access America: Reengineering
Through Information Technology.
"We are charting new waters for expediting the award process, while
giving scientists better ways to respond quickly to new research
opportunities to cure and prevent disease," says Dr. John J. McGowan,
director of the Division of Extramural Activities of the National
Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID, one of 18 NIH
During the past three years, Dr. McGowan led the development of
groundbreaking electronic systems that are revamping NIH operations.
These systems tie into NIH's goal to fully automate grants administration.
Ultimately, all functions involved -- from a scientist's sending
NIH a grant or contract application to peer review to the issuance
of an award and then post-award activities -- will be performed
Though this enormous undertaking will take several years to fully
implement, glimmers of progress are coming to light. NIAID built
three unique systems using Internet-based technology that will merge
with NIH efforts to create fully electronic commerce. These systems
have slashed the grant application process to four to five months
for the highest quality grants. Further innovations promise a three-month
cycle, a 75 percent reduction from the old ways of doing business.
Due to NIAID's innovations, a totally paperless acquisition system
has completely revamped contracting processes. The Web-based Contract
Review Online (CRON) houses the full spectrum of contracting activities
-- publishing requests for proposals (RFP), proposal submission
by offerors, and peer review and award, all done over the Internet.
CRON saves NIAID tens of thousands of dollars for each RFP and eliminates
the cost of mailing in proposals for offerors.
Nonetheless, with grants representing the vast majority of NIH awards,
hastening grant application presents a much a bigger and more significant
challenge. For example, the agency's central receipt office labors
under the weight of 30,000 applications a year, scanning each one
for scientific area before forwarding it to the appropriate Institute
and review group. Automating such functions is no small feat.
Still, the push to go online is moving forward because the benefits
are sparkling clear. NIAID's systems have proven that doing business
online only saves time but actually enhances the peer review function.
In fact, everyone involved in review -- applicants, reviewers, and
NIH staff -- seems to like the approach. Staff efficiency goes up,
and, even more important, NIH better serves its extramural research
community, the scientists in research institutions around the country
funded by NIH.
"The flexibility of the Web-based systems lets us bring people into
peer review we would otherwise miss. Because travel is often eliminated,
busy clinicians can now participate on review committees, whereas
before they simply couldn't afford the time," notes Dr. McGowan.
Beginning with Peer Review
Though ripe for streamlining, peer review is, in NIH culture, nothing
less than a sacred cow. Its outcome makes or breaks careers, potentially
affecting scientific progress. So it's understandable that the agency
goes the extra mile to ensure that applications get a truly high-quality
and fair review.
NIH's two-tiered peer review process begins with an assessment by
an applicant's scientific peers. For grants, this is generally done
by standing committees of experts in various scientific disciplines.
They meet three times a year in the Bethesda, Maryland, area to
judge an application's scientific merit and assign it a numerical
For the second level review, applications are approved (or not approved)
for funding by an institute's advisory Council, as is mandated by
law. Councils also meet in Bethesda, usually three times a year
but not necessarily in sync with review meetings. Contracts follow
a similar, two-step approach (with some procedural differences).
While the much acclaimed system is thorough and effective, it is
also replete with inefficiencies: a central receipt point in NIH
processes all incoming applications, makes paper copies, and sends
them to Institutes and reviewers; applicants wait for a review meeting
to occur and then paper notification of its outcome; Institutes
mail applications and review outcomes to Council members; and applicants
who made it through the first level peer review must then wait for
a Council meeting before they can be awarded their grant or contract.
Altogether, these delays drag out the time to award to a full year.
NIAID's Web-based systems streamline this process by automating
three broad functions: initial peer review of grants, the entire
contract application process, and Council approval. Over the Internet,
reviewers and Council members complete all tasks needed to move
applications to the next stage, resulting in earlier awards.
Information Sharing, Secure Systems
"Internet-based systems can house and transmit all information necessary
for application review and approval while providing the security
that is absolutely essential for this type of operation," says Mr.
Alexander I. Rosenthal, who is in charge of the Management Information
Systems Branch of NIAID.
All three systems share key features: user access to NIAID's secure
servers, enhanced information exchange by enabling users to view
each others' actions, and online discussion.
They are designed with a premium on user friendliness: reviewers
and Council members access NIAID's resources through their own computers,
at their own convenience, and at little or no cost to them. To make
the systems virtually painless, NIAID trained staff, made help available
to users at all times, and modified the programs based on user feedback.
Mr. Rosenthal and his staff designed the electronic systems in-house
using the latest, most advanced commercial technologies available
for the World Wide Web. Though it took several years and major releases
to get to the present stage, ultimately, they created a system that
is complex but easy to maintain, very secure but convenient to use,
and flexible enough to produce a wide range of required reports.
They began with the Council Action system for Council grant approval.
Like the other systems, it was designed for maximal sharing of information,
but, as with the other systems, data can be accessed only when appropriate.
Thus, logged-in Council members scan review scores, see whether
there are any administrative problems, read each other's recommendations,
and resolve issues. However, until the week before the meeting,
each member can only access applications assigned to him or her,
thus keeping the spirit of an initial individual assessment characteristic
of traditional NIH peer review.
With Council Action, the NIH community quickly saw the benefits
of conducting business electronically.
"Council members used to wait as long as three months for a Council
meeting to get their grants," noted Dr. McGowan. "Now, they get
immediate access to information from initial review. Our high-quality
applications are processed for funding in weeks or even months faster."
Electronic methods cut workloads and costs for the government. Gone
are the days when, before each Council meeting, NIAID mailed mounds
of review information to Council members. The new system not only
saves paper but also spreads the issuing of grant awards throughout
the year, as opposed to having hundreds of grants needing to be
processed immediately after each Council meeting.
Streamlined Review: Pleasing Reviewers and Grantees
Following the success of Council Action, NIAID's electronic initial
peer review system emerged as an NIH-wide success. Tested at seven
NIH institutes and centers during the past two years, the system
is moving many review activities online. Though live review meetings
may still take place, review committees are communicating a lot
of information beforehand. Reviewers are pleased: more than 80 percent
of those questioned told us that exchanging ideas before a meeting
helps them sort out difficult points and focuses face-to-face discussions.
Dr. Judith Appleton, member of the NIH Tropical Medicine and Parasitology
review committee, summed it up by saying, "I can't see going back
to doing the reviews the old way."
To date, more than 2,000 grant applications have been reviewed using
the electronic review system, involving 110 phone reviews or meetings
and 800 reviewers, and almost 500 NIAID grantees have received their
awards earlier as a result of Council Action.
Further boosting flexibility, NIAID is spearheading an NIH-wide
initiative to speed up receipt to award times even further. "Hyperaccelerated"
review and award trims the grant award process to just three months.
The first trial begins with a request for applications, Hyperaccelerated
Award/Mechanisms in Immune Disease Trials. Begun in fall 1998, the
effort is coordinated by Dr. Howard Dickler, chief of the Clinical
Immunology Branch in NIAID's Division of Allergy, Immunology, and
The pilot inaugurates dramatic changes for NIH. Hinging on flawless
coordination between reviewers and NIH staff, seamless electronic
systems relay information from one organization to the next in a
virtual domino effect.
Reviewers enter reviews and scores into the browser, share comments
through an electronic chat room, and then discuss and vote for a
score at a monthly conference call. Within the next two weeks, review
results are ready, and all other administrative requirements wrapped
up. Using Council Action, expedited Council review then lets NIAID
send awards out just three months from the start. The first awards
are being made in January following receipt of applications in October.
Moving Beyond NIH
Through collaborations with the private sector, NIAID's systems
are reaching to other agencies and nongovernmental organizations.
CRON is not only being tested by other Institutes but also by the
Department of Health and Human Services, which is piloting it in
several agencies to explore the potential of using NIAID as a service
center for the Department.
NIAID is also seeking to make the technology available to any interested
parties for internal use or to improve their interface with NIH.
Dr. McGowan is exploring relationships with several vendors to ensure
that all parties that interact with NIH, such as universities and
societies, are using the same computer systems. Toward those ends,
the Institute recently has signed a letter of intent with the electronic
administration and resources company RAMS-FIE for a cooperative
research and development agreement. Through the CRADA, NIAID and
RAMS-FIE will jointly develop software to create compatible, integrated
systems for funding and executive management of grants and contracts
for the government and the NIH research community.
About the Authors
Maya Hadar and John McGowan are at the National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD. Maya is Special Assistant
to the Director, Division of Extramural Activities. You may reach
her at 301-496-3773 or MHADAR@mercury.niaid.nih.gov.
John is Director, Division of Extramural Activities. You may reach
him at 301-496-7291 or JMCGOWAN@mercury.niaid.nih.gov.