Rebecca Vermillion Shawver, MPA, GPC
New Compliance Checklist for National Science Foundation Grants
Let's talk about the new compliance checklist for National Science Foundation grants.
As a busy grant professional, I both love and hate online submission processes. Even though I used Grants.gov from its inception, I still find submission day to be stressful. So many questions weigh heavily on my mind.
Will I receive a warning if I’ve forgotten to attach a mandatory document? Answer: Not always, as evidenced by a recent format that failed to include a specific location to upload the program abstract. So, if a submitter failed to attach this document (apparently to the “additional documents” section), no warning was issued and the submission process was approved—but the application would not be reviewed by the funding agency.
Are my page limits being counted correctly? When multiple documents are “numbered” as a single file, how will the system check to ensure that each section does not exceed the maximum number of pages? Answer: I still don’t know how this is done. Perhaps the old fashioned way—by people.
But I still worry. If I’m required to include a table of contents (which the instructions say won’t be included in the narrative’s maximum page count but must be numbered), I still shorten my statement by one page just to make sure my total page count doesn’t exceed the maximum number allowed for the narrative portion. Silly, perhaps, but I sleep better the night after my submissions because no matter how they “count” those pages, I won’t have exceeded the maximum allowed.
Did I make any other errors that don’t trigger an error warning? Answer: Possibly, because the old system wasn’t set up to flag all errors that will cause an application to be disqualified. The new system is trying to correct these issues but still warns that it may not trigger a warning for all errors.
Did I fill out the budget form correctly—especially for multiyear programs? Answer: I’m still not certain if this would cause a red flag to appear when I validate my submission. Having read the old and new checklists, I’m still uncertain. So my advice is to read each Program Announcement carefully for details about how to complete the budget.
Changes are coming to NSF’s FastLane
If you (or any of your professional colleagues) write and submit grants through the National Science Foundation’s Fastlane system, you should take note of changes that this agency is going to be implementing on July 26 th (published on July 11, 2016). Although I don’t submit NSF proposals often, I am definitely taking notice. I have submitted NSF applications in the past and will be submitting a new one in October of this year.
For me, it has always been a challenge to go from the Grants.gov system to the FastLane system (which is used only by NSF). As a matter of fact, when it began allowing applicants to use the Grants.gov system, I was initially thrilled. I could use the system that I was so familiar with! But some of you may remember the article I wrote in 2012, What You Should Know If You Are Going to Submit an NSF Grant Application Through Grants.gov. In it, I discussed the challenges that I faced and lessons I learned when submitting my college’s proposal through the general Grants.gov site. Most importantly, I learned that not all federal grant submissions sites are compatible with every federal agencies’ requirements.
The new checklists should be of considerable help to those of us that use FastLane. The checklist release on July 11 th addresses only NSF’s system; but another one addresses the checks in place for those that want to submit through Grants.gov.
The NSF eBusiness Outreach Notification
Having learned my lesson, I strongly encourage all of my colleagues to use the FastLane system (versus the Grants.gov portal). The NSF system has warnings built into it that will alert you if you are missing any NSF mandatory files. Furthermore, I strongly recommend that each of us that works with the National Science Foundation review the latest release from NSF eBusiness Outreach pertaining to checklists that will be implemented on July 25, 2016:
The National Science Foundation (NSF) will perform additional automated compliance checks on proposals submitted through FastLane. These automated compliance checks will not be conducted on proposals submitted to NSF via Grants.gov. Proposers submitting through Grants.gov should be aware that Grants.gov will allow a proposal to be submitted, even if it does not comply with these proposal preparation requirements. Should NSF receive a proposal from Grants.gov that is not compliant, it will be returned without review.
Information Included in NSF’s Checklist
The official checklist chart clearly illustrates which checks pertain to individual funding opportunities, type of proposals being submitted, and which checks will issue a “warning” or “error” message.
The checks listed in the latest release pertain to proposal sections, page counts, budget checks, and other checks (primarily pertaining to international activities, animal and human subjects, and times of submission, etc.). It is important to note that the new checks are in addition to currently existing checkpoints.
Important Points to Note
There are several points that I want to highlight from the official list. On the official NSF chart, these cautionary notes are listed at the bottom of the page and may be missed by those of us that read only the table.
- Not all NSF policy requirements are currently enforced by automated compliance checks. It is the responsibility of submitters to ensure that all required documents and forms are attached before submitting their proposal.
- Errors that previously didn’t trigger error messages will do so after July 26th.
- Additional automated compliance checks will now be added to the FastLane system.
- Most preliminary proposals, award supplements, and letters of intent will not be checked for errors by the system.
- Triggered warnings will only occur if applicants “check” their proposals, “allow SPO access,” or “submit” their documents to NSF.
- Some error warnings will prevent the submission of proposals; but others may not.
I personally recommend that all NSF applications be submitted through the FastLane portal. Doing it through Grants.gov simply complicates the process. NSF designed the FastLane system to meet its own needs, thus it is not surprising that NSF staff members have strongly encouraged me to use their system.
The checklist and new alerts are a step forward in NSF’s desire to improve the rate of successful submissions by agencies around the country. And I applaud it for its efforts.
For those that wish to print a copy of the official NSF checklist, please go to: http://bit.ly/nsf-checklist.