Correction to This Article
A Feb. 13 Federal Page article misstated the cost of the federal Grants.gov program. It is $22 million, not $22 billion.

New Grant System Excludes Mac Users

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By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 13, 2006

What if the federal government were about to give away more than $400 billion in grants, but only people whose computers ran on Microsoft software could apply?

That is the predicament that many scientists, scholars and others say they are in as the government enters the final phase of its five-year effort to streamline its grant-application process.

The new "Grants.gov" system, under development at a cost of tens of billions of dollars, aims to replace paper applications with electronic forms. It is being phased in at the National Institutes of Health, Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies. All 26 grant-giving agencies are supposed to have their application processes fully online by 2007.

The problem: Although many U.S. scientists and others depend on graphics-friendly Macintosh computers, the software selected by the government is not Mac-compatible. And it is expected to remain so for at least a year.

Last week, faced with evidence that the system will not be fully accessible to Mac users by this fall as promised, NIH quietly dropped its plan to switch to electronic applications for October's $600 million round of major "R01" grants.

But NIH and other agencies already have been asking for electronic applications for smaller grants, triggering hair loss among frustrated Mac users.

"It's been hell on wheels," said Mark Tumeo, vice provost for research and dean of the college of graduate studies at Cleveland State University, one of many smaller institutions that have been hit especially hard by the new requirement.

Although most observers believe that the move to electronic granting will eventually pay off, concerns about fairness during the transition have prompted angry humor on Mac-related listservs.

"Uh, this would be the same government that spent a lot of time and money pursuing Microsoft for its anti-competitive behavior?" one blogger wrote. "And they now offer a government site that mandates monopoly?"

Charles Havekost, chief information officer at the Health and Human Services Department, which helps manage Grants.gov, acknowledged that the system is "not perfect" but encouraged applicants to look at the positive side: They can go to one site and see every grant being offered by every federal agency, and use a standardized electronic form to start the process for most grants.

The overall Grants.gov system, under construction by Northrop Grumman under a $22 billion federal contract, attracts more than 1 million hits every day, Havekost said. The system accepted more than 16,000 applications for about 20 agencies last year. And it took in even more than that last month alone, with 45,000 expected by the end of this year.

"In early 2002, people laughed and said, 'This is going to be impossible to get agencies to work together,' and yet we were able to do it," Havekost said.


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