Mac-using professors have been frustrated by compatibility problems when applying online for federal funds.
June 16, 2006

Mac users: Some help is here, and more is on the way.

In recent years, as federal agencies have shifted the grant application process online, Mac users have complained about being treated as second class citizens. This year, as the National Institutes of Health shifted its process to the Grants.gov online submission system, glitches have further frustrated Mac-wielding scientists.

Grants.gov is an outgrowth of the President’s Management Agenda that seeks to have all federal grants exclusively online. In the 2005 fiscal year, 20 of 26 granting agencies had at least one-quarter of their grants available through Grants.gov. The goal for this year is to have agencies putting three-quarters of their grants online, and then all of them by the 2007 fiscal year.

Many academic scientists, however, said that the government didn’t know its audience when it began with a Windows-only system -- and changes have not gone as well as many have hoped. While Mac users may be in a minority nationally, there are parts of academe where there numbers are far from small.

In an e-mail from his hotel in Washington, where he was reviewing grants for NIH, Richard J. Bookman, executive dean of research and research training at the University of Miami’s medical school, said that, of the 25 scientists in the hotel with him, there were 13 Macs, and 12 Windows laptops.

Regarding the decision to select a Windows-only system to carry out the President’s Management Agenda, Bookman said that “it would seem as though some government decision maker didn't take enough time to understand the composition of the user community.”

Some government decision makers have, at least, been listening to the complaints.

In December, Grants.gov, which is run through the Department of Health and Human Services, came up with an interim solution. Mac users can download software from Grants.gov that allows them to fill out online applications through a server – called a “Citrix server” – housed at NIH.

When the Citrix solution debuted in December, though, it only took about a dozen simultaneous users to cause a traffic jam, and, according to David Schroeder, senior systems engineer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the solution wasn’t user friendly. “They tried to give instructions the best they could,” Schroeder said, “but I think most users would not have had much hope.”

Schroeder and others at Wisconsin streamlined the Citrix system , and Grants.gov is now using the package Wisconsin developed so that users can just click on an icon to download software and follow relatively simple instructions.

Still, researchers aren’t thrilled with the current system.

Gregory Cook, associate professor of chemistry and molecular biology at North Dakota State University, said that “you’re basically just running a PC remotely,” which isn’t terribly comfortable for long-time Mac users who never used Windows for Mac. Cook added that, when using the Citrix server, the window size is small, and text can’t be copied from a Mac application into the application forms.

John Etcheverry, Grants.gov program director, said that the initial traffic problems have been solved, and that the compatibility problem should be entirely fixed soon. Etcheverry said that Grants.gov is working with IBM to have a Mac friendly system in place by November.

Currently, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which chose Grants.gov to implement the President’s Management Agenda, about 65 percent of all federal grants can be applied for through Grants.gov. But some agencies, including NIH, have continued to offer applications through their own sites, or in paper, at least until the compatibility issues are solved once and for all.

Cook said that the National Science Foundation has had a Web-based online application system – Fastlane – that has been “working beautifully for the last five years,” he said. NSF will have to switch to Grants.gov, though, as part of the management agenda.


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