WASHINGTON—Why, wondered Erich Bloch soon after he became director of the National Science Foundation in 1984, couldn’t scien tists submit their grant proposals to NSF electronically? What Bloch had in mind was a gradual shift of the entire grants process—from the development of a proposal through its review by a panel of outside experts—from brown paper envelopes to phone circuits.

Spurred by that clear vision, NSF drew up plans, solicited proposals, and in October1986 launched a project known as EXPRES (EXP erimental Research in Electronic Submission).

But the answer to Bloch’s question, it turns out, is far from simple. Two and one-half years after NSF made identical three-year, $3 million grants to the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University to develop electronic methods of handling such documents, foundation officials have realized that EXPRES is falling far short of its lofty goals. In an effort to cut its losses, NSF...

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