Since the year 2000, all proposals for research funding from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) have been managed through a platform called FastLane. Developed in the 1990s, FastLane consolidated the traditional paper processes of grant application, approval and financial disbursement into a single computer system. This book examines its design and implementation and situates FastLane within the longer institutional history of the NSF and early Internet-era computing. Its authors, Thomas J. Misa and Jeffrey R. Yost, draw on a remarkable body of some eight hundred interviews with users of the system. Because FastLane became mandatory for grant applications in 2000, their user-centred history reveals much about the practices of scientific funding across a range of institutions. As a technology developed through a systematic design and management process, FastLane offers a case study in the development of computer systems in the decade that produced the World Wide Web and the commercial Internet.
Following an introductory chapter, Chapter 2 (‘Origins of e-government’) describes the political environment in which the NSF developed its system of paper administration of the grant process. They situate NSF's practices within two historical episodes: first, the well-known debates between Vannevar Bush and Senator Harley Kilgore over the governance of science after the Second World War; and second, the 1970s MACOS (Man as a Course of Study) controversy and Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards for government waste. They argue that the NSF's political arrangement – its mix of scientific independence and fiscal oversight by Congress – contributed to a material result: the proliferation of huge amounts of paperwork: an ‘avalanche of paper – proposals, assessments, and reports was soon aimed at and flowing through NSF's Washington Offices’ (p. 23).
The authors describe how computers came to the paper processes both of the NSF's office in general, and of application submission in particular. They attribute this to a number of factors, including the spread of personal computers in offices in the US, forward-looking management (for instance the directorship of ex-IBM executive Erich Bloch), the NSF's connections to sites of computer research, a system called EXPRES (Experimental Research in Electronic Submission) developed at the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, and the ‘tremendous enthusiasm’ about computer communications at NSF and in American culture more generally in the period ‘that fanned the dot-com bubble’ (p. 38).
Among the technical challenges for electronic grant submission were the requirements that the system handle multimedia and that it be agnostic to the manifold computer systems that populated science and administration. In Chapter 3, they show how FastLane grew up in the technical milieu that produced e-commerce and the commercial Web. The NCSA Mosaic browser developed at the NSF-supported National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois plays a particularly important role in this story. The PDF document format was also a crucial element in the FastLane submission, but it was controversial as a proprietary standard. The book shows how FastLane depended on many of the same technologies – Web browsers, the programming languages C and Perl, the Common Gateway Interface (CGI), and Sun Microsystems hardware – on which Amazon's early empire was built.
Following this history of development, the authors then provide three chapters synthesizing the user experiences of principal investigators, research administrators and the NSF. Drawing on extensive interviews, these chapters offer an account of a technical system in the making and how early adopters shape technologies. The authors move beyond users at elite institutions and show the technology in use in the diverse contexts of science at American research universities. We learn, for instance, how computerized grants allowed researchers in Hawaii to wait until the last minute to submit proposals (a privilege once afforded only to applicants in the DC area who could walk their materials to the NSF office). Their account also provides rich details about the practices of scientific collaboration, including a depiction of ‘sneaker net’. This was the name one University of North Dakota researcher ascribed to the human infrastructure of carrying a floppy disc around from office to office.
Misa and Yost discuss the experience of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and institutions supported by the NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), an effort beginning in 1978 to expand research grants beyond the small group of research universities that traditionally received the lion's share of federal grant dollars. Their interviews with researchers and administrators in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, EPSCoR-supported institutions and HBSCUs reveal the ways computer communication was positioned as a means to reduce the effects of geography on institutions far from the administrative hubs of Washington, DC or separated from centres of concentrated social capital. FastLane, they argue, ‘took form with unusual attention to equity and open access’, and making it into a required system spurred an effort to extend ‘the Internet to become a universally accessible resource’ (p. 8). Their extensive publicly available dataset and oral-history collection will be of great interest to scholars of the early Internet and its social geography, as well as to historians of science interested in the effects of computers on scientific practice.
It would have been helpful to know more about the history of concepts like ‘user-driven’ innovation or ‘human-centred’ design. Although the authors document these design processes in practice, it is less clear where these concepts came from. Did federal e-government software – technology that in principle should aspire to democratic accessibility – play a specific and pioneering role in imagining engineering methods for a diverse user base through iterative feedback processes?
Separately, it would have strengthened their account to offer historical context to their chapter on the development process of FastLane. Although they situate the NSF's paper processes in the controversies around science funding in the 1950s and 1970s, they do not do the same for the period in which FastLane was developed. The move from paper to computer is narrated as a straightforward, if iterative, project from managerial conceptualization, to user feedback, to early deployment at pilot sites, to outreach and ultimate standardization in 2000. Furthermore, the book does not say much about how governance, peer review or fiscal transparency – in practice or imagination – changed in FastLane or the Internet era. They note in the conclusion that FastLane did not unilaterally ‘cause’ NSF to attend to the ‘broader impacts [of research], [scientific] interdisciplinarity [or] congressional scrutiny’ (p. 160), but the subtitle raises the question, what changes in scientific ‘governance’ when it becomes ‘e-governance’?
The conclusions Misa and Yost draw will be of interest to historians of the development of computing systems and managers of large technical projects themselves. Making reference to the highly visible stumbles of more recent government-developed software, including the rollout of the Healthcare.gov website, this book offers an important reminder of the state's vital role as a developer and caretaker of critical electronic infrastructure.