A reader writes with this cautionary tale:
I don't know if you've heard about NSF FOIA requests, but you can make
an FOIA request to get copies of funded proposals from NSF. A
colleague of mine told me about this; that all NSF proposals are
public and that's why they have FOIA requests. It certainly sounded to
me as if NSF has a public repository or library of proposals where
anyone could easily get access. It also made sense to me --- research
papers are public, so why not funded proposals? So I made a request
for a number of proposals that looked interesting and relevant to me.
However, it turns out that it's not the case at all. NSF folks
themselves don't seem to like FOIA requests and they contact the PIs
to get approval. Then there's paper work involved. And so on. But a
bigger problem is that some people get offended by this request.
So after I found this out, I withdrew the request and sent out emails
to numerous PIs to apologize. And I will certainly tell all of my
colleagues to never do this.
I can certainly see why some PIs would be freaked out that someone was requesting to see their proposals. Proposals contain our unpublished ideas and plans. We already have to trust reviewers and panel members with these ideas, and hope that no one will steal them before we have a chance to carry out the research and publish the results. I do understand that these are public documents in some ways, but they are also very sensitive documents, and shouldn't be immediately available to anyone who wants to use or misuse them.
Of course there are innocent reasons why someone would want to see a proposal, particularly an early career faculty member who is curious about the research topics in certain proposals and who might benefit from seeing how others put proposals together. There are, however, less perilous ways to achieve some of those same goals; for example, asking senior colleagues or mentors if you can see their proposals, working on new proposals with these same colleagues, serving on a proposal review panel, communicating directly with PIs about mutual research interests, and/or inviting researchers of interest to give a talk in your own department.
I am glad that my correspondent wrote to the PIs of the proposals he requested to apologize and make it clear why he requested their proposals. This was a good thing to do. If I were one of the PIs, I would not hold it against the young professor who was just curious to see some interesting and possibly useful proposals.
And I agree that it's not a good idea to make a Freedom of Information Act request for someone's NSF proposal, even if you can.
6 months ago