By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Scientists, scholars and others planning to use their Macintosh computers to submit grant proposals to the federal government in the months ahead should be prepared for a rocky, or at least error-message-littered, road ahead.
Luckily, Mac users are used to it.
Ever since its inception several years ago, the government's electronic grant submission system has been compatible only with Windows-based computers. That has forced Mac users to go with paper submissions or use clumsy patchwork programs -- or "workarounds" -- that government officials have conceded are "not ideal" and Mac users have called, well, insert your favorite PC expletive here.
Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services -- a central manager of the Grants.gov system -- promised that by November the system would be compatible with Macs, which are popular among scientists and academics. That was based on promises from Northrop Grumman Corp., which has been paid tens of millions of dollars to run Grants.gov for the government.
But a new twist emerged this week when HHS announced that Grumman had lost its bid to win a renewal of its contract and will be moving on as of Nov. 1.
So will Grumman deliver the goods as promised before it leaves?
"That's a question we have," said Grants.gov program manager John Etcheverry.
Just last week, Etcheverry said, Grumman delivered to HHS its first shot at a Mac-compatible version of its IBM-based grant application software for an initial round of testing by government experts.
Asked how it worked, Etcheverry said hesitantly: "It's, to quote one of our testers, 'It's early.' But it seems to be working."
Despite repeated inquiries from The Post, Grumman spokeswoman Juli Ballesteros did not provide anyone to address the company's commitment to making Grants.gov Mac-compatible before the company leaves.
With that rollout uncertain, responsibility will fall to the new winner of the Grants.gov contract, Fairfax-based General Dynamics Information Technology. Under the terms of its contract, worth up to $18.9 million over five years, the company will create a new system by March 31 that will be compatible with Windows-based and Macintosh computers as well as Unix and Linux systems, which are popular in some science labs and research institutions.
The company's vice president overseeing the Grants.gov project, Mary Biear, said the company will start with a platform-independent, off-the-shelf Adobe product, which it will modify in minor ways to fit the requirements of the government's grant-application system.
She said her company would also maintain key systems left behind by Grumman -- including, if it works, the new Mac-compatible system.
"The first question for our team is . . . if users can use it," said Biear, who said she has seen the nascent product because the companies have begun a seven-week overlapping transition period. "If it's working appropriately, [we] will maintain it and roll it out. If not, we would push it back."
In that case, Mac users will have to wait until the new system comes out at the end of March.
Not everyone is optimistic that even that deadline will be met. David Cassidy, a vice president at the District-based Turner Consulting Group, which was part of a consortium that lost its bid to take over the Grants.gov contract from Grumman, said he can't see how General Dynamics can fulfill the contract's requirements for the price it promised unless the company "has some incredible 'special sauce' that will enable them to meet these budget, functionality and schedule constraints."
But even if the company succeeds on schedule, it will be too late for the thousands of applicants who face a Feb. 1 deadline for the National Institutes of Health's most popular "R01" research grants. NIH has announced that it wants all those applications to be filed electronically.
"The big NIH deadline is Feb. 1, 2007," said John S. Massa, associate director of the University of Iowa's division of sponsored programs, in an e-mail. So a March release "isn't going to help much."
Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, conceded the timing was awkward.
Will the agency consider pushing back its deadline for an all-electronic submission process? "That is something we may want to think about," she said.