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.
But the promise of making Grants.gov accessible to everyone remains unfulfilled because of a decision by Grumman and HHS to give a small Canadian company called PureEdge Solutions the job of creating the electronic forms.
The PureEdge solution, it turns out, works only with the Windows operating system. And that is especially galling, several scientists said, as at least one major grant-making agency, the National Science Foundation, has for many years been using a "platform-independent" system that works seamlessly with all kinds of computers.
Mike Atassi, program manager for Grumman's Grants.gov system integration team and an avowed fan of Macintosh computers, said the choice of PureEdge was logical given that the contract demanded full implementation within seven months and because more than 90 percent of computer users nationwide use PCs.
Critics note that in contrast to the domination of PCs in the business community, Macs constitute about one-third to one-half of the computers scientists and academicians use.
A long-standing PureEdge promise to make its forms Mac-compatible came into question last summer when IBM bought the company. Last week, an IBM spokesman said the company is "still planning to fully support the Mac," probably by fall.
Atassi said if he receives a test version from IBM by this fall, it could be ready by the following spring.
Meanwhile, the government is steering people to certain "workarounds" -- ways to make Macs behave as though they were PCs -- which can be purchased or downloaded from the Internet. But those systems are receiving mixed reviews.
At the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. -- one of the nation's premier research institutions, where every senior scientist has a personal grants administrator -- Mac users have used an in-house version of a Web server called Citrix to get around Grants.gov's limitations, said Mary Anne Donovan, administrative lab manager for a Whitehead researcher.
The process has advantages over paper applications, Donovan said. "I can't tell you how many times I've had to take a cab to the airport at the last minute to FedEx my nine paper copies," she said. "If you can just press a button and send it, that's got to be better."
But others who have turned to the workarounds recommended by Grants.gov have not fared as well.
Nancy Wray, who directs the office at Dartmouth College that handles federal grant applications, said a recent attempt to use the Citrix server workaround was a bust. After struggling though lingo-laden government instructions "an awfully long time," she said, the grant applicant "just gave up."
Christine Sell, who works with Tumeo at Cleveland State, called the Grants.gov workarounds "a walk in the wilderness." Mac users loathe one approach recommended by the government -- a "PC emulation" program -- because it is susceptible to PC-specific viruses they normally do not have to worry about.
Other glitches plague the system, said Wendy Baldwin, executive vice president for research at the University of Kentucky, who told of a researcher who filed on time but did not find out until two days later that the electronic form had not gone through.
"When it takes 48 hours to get a 'fatal error' notice back, you're screwed," she said. "This is supposed to be a partnership. . . . If you crank off your investigators and they don't make their deadlines, that's a terrible thing."
In an interview, HHS's Havekost acknowledged that "there's been plenty of hue and cry," adding that applicants can apply for waivers to use paper if need be. Asked to confirm that the workarounds were at least "workable" -- a word he had used twice earlier in the conversation -- he pulled back.
"That's not my word," Havekost said. "There will be a firestorm if you say I said it is workable."