Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My humble efforts to submit

Maybe we should just experiment on ourselves
I've come to the conclusion that writing a grant is by far easier than submitting one, at least to the NIH. For the past two weeks, I've been trying to submit a phase I SBIR, and now that we're approaching the second deadline for resolving grant problems (Dec. 15th), it's getting harder to suppress that impending feel of panic as the NIH is insisting that the second deadline is for real.

If you've read other postings here, you might know that I usually write about more teacherly topics, after all, this is not an anonymous blog and there are plenty of sites where you can read writer's rants. However, in light of my current mood of quiet desperation, I really couldn't pass this up. What better way to deal with pain than to try to find the funny side?

A phase I SBIR, for those of you new to the lingo, is a small grant that small businesses can apply for to help jump start new research activities. My company, Geospiza, has had these kinds of grants in the past, so we usually know how to handle these sorts of things. But for this submission period the NIH decided to try a large, uncontrolled, experiment on a few thousand (and probably unwilling) human participants.

That's correct. After a long-standing tradition of voraciously consuming trees by making people send in several photocopies of large applications, the NIH will no longer accept anything but electronic grant submissions. I'm okay with that. It's a good thing to do with the potential to make life a bit easier. The NSF has done this for several years and it works. It's just that the rapid transition, multiple web sites, and lack of useful information on the most challenging site, is making this really, really hard. So, I've decided to share my pain and hopefully spare a few of you from the same path of suffering and anxiety.

Maybe I'm just not the submissive type
I'm optimistic that the bugs will get worked out, but if you plan to submit a proposal in the next year, pay attention.
  • Do as much as you can in advance. I've spent two weeks now on the electronic submission step and the end is not yet in site. If you do the math, that means at least 4 weeks to write your proposal, two weeks to get it through the proper channels, and possibly two or more weeks to get it submitted correctly. (That's right, at least 8 weeks.)

  • Don't waste time with e-mailing the commons support group (unless you really don't like looking around web sites for information. The e-mails didn't tell me anything that wasn't already posted.)

  • Do call the help desk, but be warned, the toll-free phone number is only on the front page of the commons, you won't find it by clicking the Tab labeled "Help." Help is most helpful when nothing's gone wrong.

  • Stock up on crossword puzzles or some blogs to read while you're waiting on the phone.

How long must I submit? My personal odyssey

Weds., Nov. 30th, 8-11 pm
First let me say this: I use a Mac. Many people groan when they hear that and decide right away that I'm a stereotypical troublemaker and that all the problems are due to my poor titanium G4 laptop. So, usually when I need to ask for help, people want to blame everything on my Mac. But my Mac is not the problem. I've learned to adapt when it's necessary. And just in time, too, since the NIH has decreed that we shall all use either Windows or Virtual PC, if we wish to apply for funding. So I began the odyssey by installing the government-mandated PureEdge program on Virtual PC my Mac. First hurdle, successfully jumped!

Then, I hit the SUBMIT button in PureEdge. Something seemed to happen. FireFox opened up. And then everything stopped.

No luck. I try again, no luck. I notice that the copyright date on PureEdge is a few years old (2002), so on a hunch I open up Internet Explorer and the submission process starts working! Yeah!!! It's submitted. I can go to sleep now.

Thurs., Dec. 1st, 5:30 am AAAHHH! There's an automated e-mail from the NIH saying that there are errors in the application (but no indication of what they are) and today is the deadline and I have leave town tomorrow morning!! Plus, once the grant has been submitted I have two days to log in to the commons and approve it. (This step seems kind of redundant to me since it's quite alot of work to submit something that I don't approve of.)

Really, it would be nice if the subject line in the e-mail said something, like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in large friendly letters, : DON'T PANIC!.

But that would be wrong. Panic is exactly what's called for in this situation. Among the helpful bits of information in the e-mail is the statement:
To view the messages, log in with your username and password
to the NIH era Commons website at .... Then select the Status menu item, retrieve the grant application, and click on the Application Identifier (TN) link next to the submitted application.
And a bunch of other stuff that didn't really matter because I logged and couldn't find my grant application. Naturally, I couldn't retrieve it.

I e-mailed the help desk but then got nervous and called support. Ah good, only 8 people in the queue. The nice and very cordial support person told me the problem was that my user name was missing from the proposal. Was that in the instructions? I added my user name and uploaded the grant again, guessing from the time stamps on the e-mails that it would be about 8 hours before I would find out if this worked.

Thurs., Dec 1st 7 pm I get another e-mail with the same error message as before. I still don't see my grant when I log in but at I'm a little relieved to see that the deadline for corrected applications has been extended to the 8th (of course we have to have a written note from our parents .. no just joking, but we do have to include a cover letter with an explanation for why the proposal is late, I kid you not!). And I have to catch a shuttle at 5 am to get to the airport to go to California and give a professional development workshop for high school teachers on using computers for doing biology (yes, you sense irony).

This time I sent an e-mail to the support group asking for their help.

Tues., Dec 6th I'm back in town and at 11 am receive a return e-mail from the commons telling me to log in and retrieve the grant (that I can't find or see) with a list of the most common problems and a nice note stating that my issue has been closed.

Okay. I get on the phone once again (only 20 people in the queue this time!) and once again talk to a very nice, patient help desk guy, who tells me how to find submitted grants that have errors. He also points out that I'm not a PI! What!!! Okay, I suppose that one must be my fault since I was the person in our company who took the initiative, a year ago, and applied for a commons account in the first place. I don't how I could have done this and not assigned myself a role as a PI, unless I thought I had to have an NIH grant at the time. Never mind that. Help desk guy tells me it's not too late. I can make myself a PI. And bless him, he tells me how to find grants that have e-submission errors so I can find and fix them myself.

Oh yeah, and I need to fix a math error. Rounding up by 20 cents is an unforgivable sin.

No problem. I do it. Except this time, I forgot about the browser issue. I spend two hours trying to figure out why the grants.gov submission isn't working and talking with a very nice (but clueless) person at grants.gov who tells me that our T1 connection must not be fast enough.

Luckily I remembered the solution before someone took my stapler.

Tues., night, Dec. 6th It turns out that I had a typo in my congressional district and apparently the NIH cannot figure out where I live from an address and zip code. Plus, Microsoft Excel cannot calculate 7% accurately. The value was off by 0.000625 cents and that discrepancy triggered more error messages. I fix the errors again and once more I SUBMIT.

Weds., Dec 7th, 1 am I get an e-mail saying that the grant has been retrieved. Yeah! This time it has to work!

Weds., Dec. 7th, 6 am I log in to the NIH commons to check and find out if there's a way that I can see the grant has been received. Nada. I can find the two of the previous grants with errors but not the latest version.

I sent an e-mail to support asking them if I should be able to see if the grant has been retrieved. I can see the others that had errors by using the method I learned from the help desk guy, but not the most recent submission.

I start checking the site on a daily basis.

Fri., Dec. 9th I get a canned answer from support with a list of the most common submission problems. I e-mail a reply that I still can't tell if the grant was okay or not. I try calling the help desk. No luck. But the help desk phone message has morphed into something new and amusing. Along with the usual bit about the call being monitored, I now hear:
"The help desk is experiencing a high volume of calls and not taking any e-mails at this time. If you have left a voice mail please e-mail us at.... If you wish to remain on the line you may do so. If you wish to hang up, press 1 now...." and so on.
Apparently, (to paraphrase the taped message) the commons is experiencing such a high volume of calls that they've lost all their voice mail capacity. You cannot leave a voice mail and if you thought you left one earlier, you were wrong. (Okay, my confidence in the system has been restored.)

I especially like the part of the message where you're told to press 1 to hang up. (huh? The usual method works just fine. I've been doing this every day for a week so I know this).

I send an e-mail to support.

After all this fuss, don't I deserve a little reassurance?

Mon., Dec. 12th I'm getting worried about not seeing the application anywhere in the commons. I spend half an hour waiting on the phone to talk to a help desk person. Time to press 1.

Tues., Dec. 13th I get an automated e-mail at 3 pm from the NIH commons saying:

Our records indicate that you may have started, but not completed, the submission process for an SBIR or STTR grant application to the National Institutes of Health (NIH)..... etc.

Yikes! But at least, I think I know what's wrong. I find something new in the list of submssion problems on the commons website mentioning that I need to edit my account so that I'm both a PI and an SO (some administrative thing). I make myself a new PI account. BUT here's the worst part. TIME IS RUNNING OUT. This is all supposed to be resolved by the 15th and after I set up my second new PI account (with a new user name), I get an e-mail saying that it will take the Commons 2-5 days to verify my account, plus, since I have a different user name associated with that account, which means that I will have to upload the whole enchilada again through grants.gov and the validation process seems to take 8 or so hours.

I am getting very worried about this. I now have 3 accounts with the NIH commons, with 3 different user names and 3 different passwords. And one account with Grants.gov with another set of user names and passwords. And I still don't know where my proposal is.

Weds. morning, Dec. 14th I found a link last night on the era commons web site for sending feedback on the submissions process. I sent a long panicky diatribe and this morning got a very nice e-mail from someone at the NIH. This was followed up by a phone call and some help. It's now 10 am and we're still not done with the process but I'm staying optimistic. I need to resubmit through grants.gov one more time but I'm getting messages that say Bad Gateway. Right bad, bad gateway, you be nice to that upstream server.

wish me luck! I'll keep you posted when I've finally submitted.

FYI: I want to emphasize that both the grants.gov and NIH help desk people have been very nice and cordial throughout this ordeal. Their task is not easy.

Weds. Dec. 14th 5:45 pm It's in and it's done and I owe many thanks to the kind and helpful people at the NIH help desk.

For those of you thinking about submitting a proposal soon, give yourself plently of time, and consider yourself warned!



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