Designing an online grant submission system?!

Good for you!

Let me help you out!

In my four-and-a-bit years as a grant wrangler, I’ve applied to a bewildering array of Canadian and international government and charitable funding agencies. Every organisation has their own system (some even have different systems for different grant mechanisms), each with its strengths and weaknesses – I won’t name names, but anyone in the same business as me will have their own favourite and least favourite systems!

For your viewing and/or schadenfreude-related pleasure, I’ve therefore put together a helpful* list of good, bad, and “meh” practices for each of the major components of a grant submission. Please add your own in the comments!

(NB I originally tried to to this by making an elegantly formatted table and uploading it via Flickr, but the image quality wasn’t good enough. Still available here if anyone’s interested, or I can email you the PDF if you’re really interested!).


Bad: Paper. I mean, really. (Last time encountered: 2010, FFS);
CDs are almost as bad (not encountered since 2008, thankfully).

Meh: Email attachments. PDFs almost acceptable; anything else, not so much.

Best: Online only.

CONTACT INFO (PI, co-applicant, suggested / excluded reviewer etc)

Bad: Failure to recognise phone number if input in wrong format (e.g. (555) 555 5555 instead of 555-555-5555 – the horror!);
Failure to recognise email address if a space accidentally got typed after it (happened to me yesterday, resulting in an unspecified “section incomplete” error that took 20 minutes to identify and fix);
Fax number as required field, especially for excluded reviewers (often not listed on PIs’ websites: no possible way to ask them for it!).

Best: Auto-populates upon pasting in the person’s email address / system login name / agency PIN.


Bad: Uses a completely unique format;
Requires non-standard extras, e.g. grant # for each current & submitted grant, or the impact factor / reason for choice of journal / detailed description of applicant’s role for every paper.

Meh: Uses a standard format, e.g. NIH Biosketch style.

Best: (If Canadian): uses Common CV (online system that lets you enter all CV info in a standard format and will then generate the correctly formatted CV for any member organisation);
(If foreign): Any format acceptable, as long as it includes [reasonable list of normal CV features].

DETAILS & ABSTRACTS OF OTHER CURRENT AND SUBMITTED GRANTS (to assess overlap with current proposal)

Bad: Details for each grant must be completed individually via an online form;
Every abstract has to be attached separately.

Meh: Full, detailed list required, but can be done in Word and attached as a single PDF;
Not required unless there actually is an overlap to declare;
Not required unless funded.

Best: Just don’t ask for it. Several major funding agencies get by just fine without it, you know.


Bad: Form only shows one year / one line item at a time;
Separate justification text required for each line item / category of items.

Best: Form shows all line items for all years, allowing applicant to easily check against an Excel spreadsheet;
Line item and annual totals calculated and displayed as you go;
Budget justification attached as single PDF.


Bad: Entered into text box, meaning that it has to be carefully and repeatedly checked and re-checked for formatting, non-standard characters, and to make sure headers aren’t separated from associated text etc. (Last encountered: today).

Meh: There is no middle ground. Text box EVIL, attachment AWESOME.

Best: Attached as PDF.


Bad: Anything involving envelopes and stamps / Fed-Ex accounts.

Meh: Online after applicant submits the grant, forcing local office of research facilitation to impose crazily early internal deadlines but then still resulting in a mad crazy deadline panic that is out of applicants’ hands due to volume of applications.

Best: Applicant uploads scanned signed form to online application in their own time and is then solely responsible for submitting by the one and only grant deadline.


Bad: No validation check or preview.

Meh: Omissions / mistakes trigger a warning, but no details are given.

Best: Clear description of what’s missing / wrong and how to fix it.

FINAL APPLICATION FILE (generated by system for applicants’ records; usually emailed to co-applicants by the main PI or their wrangler)

Bad: Not a PDF;
Incomplete – e.g. doesn’t include figures or proposal (last encountered: last month);
Fugly thing with no spaces between sections, so sections start in the middle of a page (ditto).

Meh: Complete, but boring stuff up front, e.g. CVs, list of other current and submitted grants etc. Yes, I have seen this kind of thing placed before the grant’s abstract, proposal, and budget;
No table of contents or hyperlinks to specific sections.

Best: Each section starts on a new page;
Index available with hyperlinks to each section and attachment;
Most important info up front (applicants, review panels, abstract, proposal, references, figures, budget, THEN the boring stuff)


*well, I found it helpful anyway. I needed a good venting session and online grant submission forms are an easy target.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in career, grant wrangling, science, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Designing an online grant submission system?!

  1. Mike says:

    I’ve just been filling out some job applications – some online, others by email, so I’d like to add a couple of other points to your list, if you don’t mind:


    Bad: Anywhere with a character limit: specify the limit CLEARLY and whether this includes spaces or not.

    Bad: If you insist on using text input boxes in your online forms, please have the decency to make sure putting in fewer than the maximum stated number of characters (including spaces) does not generate an error. (And I can assure you, “Srsly, WTF?” is < 4000 characters)

    If I don't get the position, I'll be back here to tell you exactly which 'prestigious' UK University apparently can't handle one or both of these simple requirements.

    Oh – and if you're an HR department, please read through my attached documents (which all included the reference for the College of Science & Engineering in the footer on every page) before you ask me which department in the School of Humanities and Associated Farting Around you want me to apply to.

  2. Mike says:

    uffff – frustration leads to formatting errors. I didn’t mean to shout all of that, sorry. Bold should finish after the uppercase shouting.

  3. Blech. I feel all icky now. All those miserable grant application issues…

    While formatted PDFs are lovely in many respects, I utterly despise grant systems that generate them as the only output option. I would much rather have a nicely-formatted Word doc (or .rtf or whatever) as output so that I can re-use it easily. Cut and paste from PDFs is horrid, as are the bad things they do to figures.

    Sure, I keep all the source documents and sections – but I wish I didn’t have to. If the online system wrapped it all up nicely for me I’d be much happier. This is also an issue with certain online quarterly reporting systems for certain regional genome centres of my acquaintance (not naming any names, of course).

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Mike: “If you insist on using text input boxes in your online forms, please have the decency to make sure putting in fewer than the maximum stated number of characters (including spaces) does not generate an error.”

    SERIOUSLY??!! You have to have EXACTLY the right number of characters – not one more or less?! You said that “Srsly, WTF?” was not accepted, but I’d be tempted to fill in any extra space with “WTFWTFWTFWTFWTF” until the right number of characters is reached.

    Best of luck with your job search!

    Richard, I agree that copying and pasting from PDFs is a right royal pain in the arse – but I always keep all the source files anyway, often including multicoloured evidence of many rounds of track changes and amusingly snarky comments in the margins; as I mentioned in an earlier post I get very little specific feedback on my edits and the sections I wrote from scratch, so I have to infer it from differences between versions!

    Online progress report submission systems do indeed suffer from some of the same faults as their grant application counterparts, but there are usually fewer components. I’ve contributed a couple of sections of text to our local version of the regional genome centre of your acquaintance, but mercifully haven’t had to take charge of one… yet…

    • Mike says:

      Cath: I tried all sorts of combinations, except filling up the empty spaces with “You are a bunch of incompetent imbeciles”.

      (I have a history of telling IT staff exactly what I think of their capabilities, and it doesn’t always end well. My favourite case of IT incompetence lasted over a month of me without a functioning computer (not helpful for a theoretical ecologist) and led me to finally respond with some fruity language, leading to a change of institutional policy that prevented students dealing directly with IT support. Wusses.)

      I really hope the issue wasn’t a requirement of exactly 4000 characters, but when two different word processors tell you that your text contains < 4000 characters (including spaces), and an online form still generates an error, well, the word "panic" only covers some of the emotions felt as the deadline looms ever closer.

      And thanks for the luck. I hope I don't need it, but I'll take it.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Having just submitted (almost–one more to go!) more than half a dozen proposals from the lab over the last 4 weeks, I KNOW EXACTLY how you feel about all those crazy submission systems and formats. You are probably aware that the NIH system in the US is SO COMPLICATED, that universities all hire an external consulting company to take care of the submission process!

    One of my many heroic struggles these past few was actually with a PDF file. Sounds easy, but the 16 page file was 15 MB, and too big to submit through our antiquated email system. So, reduce the size of the PDF, you say. Sure! But every time I get an error. I have a Mac, so I tried on several PCs, and nogo.

    Redo the PDF, you say. Sure! But the PDF comes from a Word document, embedded with power point figures that were originally derived from Adobe Photoshop Images, that were saved as TIFs from the Laser Scanning Microscopy system that we have. Not so simple!

    Deadline approaching–what to do?!

    Well I knew it was because of one or more complex figures, so it hit on the following solution: extract each of 16 PDF pages and reduce their size individually. This worked for all but 1 page, that had a large complex figure and stayed 3 MB. All the others did reduce their size. And recompile.

    It took me 45 minutes of listening to HO! and HA! during my son’s Taekwando class, but I did it!

    I know 2 things with submissions:

    1) There’s ALWAYS something that crops up, and

    2) It ain’t over ’til it’s over…

  6. Grant says:

    FWIW, the grant I’m working on at present is filed to an on-line form-based system that reads in Word files and generates PDFs. Applicants can download the PDFs as an additional copy for reference.

    I can’t see the value of a FAX number these days, almost everyone I know sends things as attachments via email!

    This one is electronically signed off by first registering, then in the actual form is just filled in. This does mean that applicants have to sign up, but it saves last-minute hassles.

    The one problem with standardising is that sometimes is can be a problem to those the ‘fall between the cracks’ in the design. I think it’s wise to include a ‘other comments’ section for applicants to make relevant remarks to go some way to covering this sort of thing. One case I’ve had as an illustration. For one job, the system wanted me to estimate my ‘income’, as if I were to be employed in-house, but provided no way for me to indicate that as I’d applied to externally contract the work my rates were a consulting fee (these include overheads and so are not directly comparable with a salary).

  7. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Update: a mutual friend has forwarded this list to an acquaintance of mine who just started a new job with a local funding agency that includes implementing a new online grant submission system! So maybe this post will actually help someone other than myself!

    Steve, yeah, we had similar problems last week trying to get an accepted but not yet formatted for publication manuscript with many figures down to less than 5MB so we could attach it to one of the grants. It’s so much fun trying to isolate the one component of one image that’s causing the problem!

    I’ve managed the submission of one NIH R21 grant, and have also worked on several R01s where another PI’s grant wrangler was ultimately responsible for submitting the grant. I don’t think they’re actually any worse than anyone else – there are some Canadian agencies with much worse systems – but there are some components to the grants that aren’t usually required in Canadian grants, so we have to be especially diligent to make sure we fulfill all the criteria!

    Grant, I like your “other comments” section idea – you’re right, no system will fit every submission.

    Good luck to both of you with the grants you’re working on!

    • Grant says:

      Obvious suggestion I know, but perhaps it’s worth their while seeing if the holders of an existing scheme that is close to what they want will let them have their code to base there’s on. This will depend on the basis the code was developed, but it might be worth asking around rather than build a new scheme entirely scratch – ?

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        …or maybe this is one wheel that needs reinventing?!

        • Grant says:

          I don’t have experience of different systems to compare them, so I wouldn’t really know. The system the RSNZ is using isn’t all bad – to my (programmer’s) eye it more need polishing than replacing, but then like I say I don’t have things to compare it with. I’m sure you can do better – that’s almost invariably true! 🙂

          BTW – forgot last time to say thanks for the good wishes. I’m now bleary-eyed from reading stuff :-/ (I enjoy the reading though. If I could be paid to write review papers, I probably would!)

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            Same here!

          • Grant says:

            re: review papers – not saying it’d be a good career move, as they take a lot of time and don’t get much credit, which in some ways is a pity as the better review papers make a decent contribution to the literature. (But of course I’m biased…)

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