How We Got Here: A History of eRA

how we got here

The electronic Research Administration (eRA) at NIH came along in the late 1990s, driven by the goals of e-government to improve access to federal grants through the Internet and borne of the need to move the processing of grants from a cumbersome, manual paper process to an electronic process.

eRA had been preceded by Information for Management, Planning, Analysis and Coordination (IMPAC I), the early system for application and award data that was phased out and replaced by IMPAC II, now part of eRA and referring to eRA’s internally facing modules for NIH and partner agency staff.

IMPAC was born in the late 1960s when the NIH identified a need to centrally track research applications from receipt through final grant closeout. IMPAC I was a mainframe system programmed in COBOL and housed in NIH’s Division of Research Grants (DRG), where grant records were then entered manually into the system for NIH. When DRG was named an NIH center in 1997 and became the Center for Scientific Review, the gateway for NIH grant applications and their review for scientific merit, IMPAC I was spun off to the Office of Extramural Research (OER).

Under the IMPAC II project, the first batch of modules were for NIH staff — Special Initiatives Tracking System, Committee Management, Grants Management, Institute and Center Operations and Receipt and Referral. The modules were client/server modules, meaning that they were installed individually on each user’s computer, with help desk staff having to make ‘house calls’ to help users.

As technology evolved, so did IMPAC II.

Going Digital

In 1998, the passage of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act called for paper to be replaced by digital data.

The focus at OER shifted to modules for the applicant and grantee community. eRA Commons, a virtual meeting place for NIH and the grantee community to conduct grants business electronically and to display status and reports online, was originally developed in 1999 outside of OER. In 2001, Commons was brought into OER. The new Electronic Research Administration (eRA) got underway, formed as a combination of IMPAC II and Commons. Two years later, both systems were fully integrated.

Internet Assisted Review (IAR) arrived in 2002.  That year, IMPAC I was retired and IMPAC II became the system of record for application records.

The move from paper to digital was an enormous task for NIH. Grant applications came in by FedEx to CSR and several copies had to be made for reviewers and NIH staff, resulting in stacks and stacks of paper that rose ceiling high. In 2002, eRA and other NIH Institutes/Centers began scanning incoming, NIH competitive applications to save copying and distribution costs and go digital. For the first time that year, applications and related meeting materials were placed on CDs and mailed to reviewers.

eRA Partners

AHRQ, the HHS operating division that focuses on improving access to quality medical care, is one of eRA’s oldest partners, using both IMPAC I and II. CDC was also an early adopter and uses eRA for its pre-award and post-award activities.

In 2003, an HHS decision to centralize all research grants processing under the eRA system brought in more partners. SAMHSA was the second to start using eRA systems around 2005. Soon after, in 2006, FDA came on board. In 2008, VA became an eRA partner. In 2017, DoD Uniformed Services University (USU) started using eRA modules and in 2019, another program of DoD began using QVR.

No More Paper!

Meanwhile, in December 2005, NIH took a momentous step forward in the way it traditionally received grant applications, when small business grant applications became the first to be submitted electronically. One by one, all competing research grant programs went electronic. Applications submitted to the fed-wide portal of Grants.gov were retrieved by eRA and made available in eRA Commons for applicants to view.

Evolving Into a Trans-Agency Program

Over the last decade, eRA has grown exponentially into a large, high-profile entity, from having two dozen modules to over 70 modules, doubling its staff, and expanding its reach to partners. eRA is recognized as an experienced service provider to NIH and several other HHS operating divisions and federal agencies. It supports AHRQ, CDC, FDA, SAMHSA, VA, DoD, Uniformed Services University and will be welcoming the Department of Commerce in 2023.

eRA is considered one of HHS’s High Value IT Assets and is aligning itself with the goals of HHS’s Quality Services Management Office (QSMO) of improving grants management.

Sometimes a program grows beyond the scope of its original name and that is true for the electronic Research Administration. eRA is a legacy acronym that came from its roots when it only dealt with research grants. Over the years, eRA has evolved to manage non-research grants, support the Loan Repayment Program and administer Other Transactions in its systems.

eRA is now known as simply eRA (having shed the electronic Research Administration when referencing its systems). It is more reflective of the gamut of services it offers and the trans-agency program that it has become.