Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Not For Your Information

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 Proposals contain our unpublished ideas and plans.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.


Anonymous said...

I see no problem with making proposals easily available to anyone at the conclusion of the grant, once you have had a few years to try out the ideas. If you put ideas in a proposal, it means you seriously think they can be done within the timeframe. Maybe you are wrong, but that risk is not a huge price to pay for all the money you are requesting. The taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. I think this strikes a good balance between a PI's right to keep ideas confidential for a few years, and the public's right to review how their money is being spent.

Anonymous said...

Are FOIA requests available via FOIA?Or can you request a proposal anonymously?

Anonymous said...

When applying for grants / fellowships, I've often asked former successful grant/fellowship holders if they would be willing to give me a copy of one of their applications. (Names of successful applicants are available publicly for most fellowships at least).

Very often people are happy to do this if they have even a vague connection to me (i.e., we met and spoke about research at a conference a few years ago). They *always* ask me to keep these confidential.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I'll give my awarded NIH grant proposals to anyone who asks for them. If you are putting truly sensitive competitively important information in a grant proposal, you're a fucken idiot.

Eilat said...

I wonder if there can be a middle ground. I learned a lot about writing good proposals by being on a review panel, but this was after I had already gotten one approved. They usually don't invite reviewers who have not been approved before -- do they?

How about making it very easy to access a proposal whose timeline has passed. e.g., if it is a proposal for 3 years of funding then make it public after 3 years. The scientist promises to perform the work in that time frame so it can act like a proprietary period.

In my field, astronomy, if a proposal to use the Hubble Space Telescope is approved you have a one year proprietary period where the data is yours to do what you want. After a year the data becomes public for anyone to download and use. This means that if you do not work on the data quickly you could get scooped, which may seem stressful, but it is better for science as a whole, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

FOIA requests are often used by animal rights activists to harass people doing animal research.

Doug said...

Being able to FOIA information is part of keeping government accountable to their funding agency, the tax payer. I feel pretty good trusting NIH and NSF to spend that cash, because I know the people and the process. But not everyone does.

Now, just because one CAN FOIA doesn't mean one should. It's kind of the TSA "enhanced pat-down" of asking for information. Usually, an email to the PI will get you the information, a pleasant conversation for a bit, and some updated information on how things are progressing. If you feel shy, most of the Awarded proposals go on line, and you can get at least an abstract to get the gist of the proposal.

On the third hand, there are times to use the FOIA, but chances are there are also going to be lawyers involved too: say a patent ligation, ethics violation, or possibly a criminal case.

Rosie Redfield said...

I post my grant proposals as soon as I submit them. But then, I don't have any real competitors and I'm looking for collaborators.

plam said...

Eilat, they also take Canadian academics on NSF panels, and we certainly don't have awarded NSF grants. They are a useful exercise, though.

At the previous NSF panel I was on, we did talk about how it seemed like a good idea to us to make proposals public after the term of the proposal expired.

I will generally share any document I've produced, without even asking people to keep it confidential. (I don't see the need to ask people to keep, say, my statement for reappointment confidential.)

EliRabett said...

AFAIK, you can only FOIA a proposal that has been funded. Moreover, they scrub the budgets.

Anonymous said...

Someone did that to me! I was completely puzzled as they could have just asked me directly but instead went through NSF and then my university (who was puzzled as no one had ever done that before). It was all very odd. I googled the person and she was a faculty member at a non-top university. Why not just email me??

Anonymous said...

what about rejected proposals? wouldn't there be useful lessons to be learned by requesting to read other people's proposals that had been submitted but denied funding, and any feedback given by reviewers? It's not like the author can use the proposal if it's already been rejected...(unless they're still trying to submit it elsewhere until it gets funded)..?

Anonymous said...

So -- I just got my first FOIA request the other day coincidentally for a proposal I got funded 2 years ago. I looked back at my proposal.. and there is still one idea that I haven't published on yet. Should I tell my university to omit this section? Is it worth it?

Yeah.. I looked up the guy, and he's my year (right before tenure)... probably desperate at his last CAREER attempt. I feel for him... so even though I want to still research and publish on that idea I had... should I still just release the whole thing to him?