Scientific tack pays off at NIH

'If you look at an IT project and a scientist's work, it's much the same. You focus on different technologies, but if you look at the major questions, it's all about logic.'

' NIH's John McGowan

Henrik G. DeGyor

As the program manager of one of the three largest IT initiatives at the National Institutes of Health, John McGowan said his background as a research scientist helps him tremendously.

'Having worked in research, you have to develop skills of critical thinking,' he said. 'You also have to hone your presentation skills.'

Those skills have helped McGowan guide the Electronic Research Administration project through significant changes and growth. The budget for the program has more than doubled over the last two years, and NIH has moved the project closer to maturity.

While pursuing a doctorate in virology and running a laboratory at the University of Mississippi in the late 1970s, McGowan taught 100 medical students and nurses every year. He often tackled issues of effective communication and budgeting for the research work. Today, he deals with those issues on a larger scale in managing eRA.

Through eRA, NIH expects to receive 45,000 biomedical research and training grant applications, conduct initial and secondary reviews and administer awards'all online.

By 2004, NIH will have a portal to let NIH staff and agency partners access applications and conduct virtual meetings.

The project will integrate two legacy systems: the Commons system and the Information for Management, Planning, Analysis and Coordination II system.

The Commons system is a network of 34 servers running Oracle databases and 28 other types of commercial software under Unix and Microsoft Windows NT. It lets the public and organizations that receive grants transmit information about the research process, McGowan said.

'It's almost like a virtual meeting place for them to exchange information about the research process,' he said.

That's logical

The agency will use Java 2 Enterprise Edition as the underlying technology for Commons once it becomes a part of eRA, he said.

The other legacy system, called IMPAC II, consists of an Oracle relational database management system and a suite of applications that let users submit grants applications and check their status.

McGowan has brought his experience in research into play in the work on eRA.

'If you look at an IT project and a scientist's work, it's much the same,' McGowan said. 'You focus on different technologies, but if you look at the major questions, it's all about logic.'

The project has been divided into 20 business areas such as grants management, review management and budget management. Each is represented by a group advocate who works with McGowan.

Sixty NIH employees who manage 200 contract personnel also work with McGowan. Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Information Technology division in Herndon, Va., the prime contractor on the project, leads a group of 16 companies in the effort.

McGowan said when he took over the reins of eRA in 2000, it had a $15 million budget. For fiscal 2002, the funding boomed to $34 million.

'Getting enough budget is always tough since the ones who decide the budget are not necessarily the users of the system,' he said.

McGowan said it's important to have everyone who is involved in the project be part of budgeting.

For instance, he held meetings with users of eRA, asked them what they wanted the system to do and then conducted a cost analysis of their requirements.

When costs are tied to the project's business requirements, it's easier to get funding, McGowan said.

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