I was just about to prepare a blog post about Freedom of Information Act requests and federal grants, when I got this interesting piece of email:
I am a Program Advisor for [redacted]. One of my responsibilities is to locate funded proposals upon the request of our members who are primarily sponsored programs officers.
I am writing to request a copy of your NSF IRES funded proposal; Fire, Carbon and Climate Change in Australia. A [redacted] member from [redacted] would like to review a copy of this in preparation for a future submission.
I do understand that this request can be made through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that is a lengthy process. [Redacted] Program Advisors always prefer to contact funded PIs directly. Please contact me with any questions and/or concerns.
Thank you in advance for considering this request. I hope to hear from you soon!
So, what did I do? Obviously, I’ve written a blog post about it. I did not reply to the email. If I did reply, this is what I’d write:
I appreciated receiving your email. I do have a concern that the contents of my proposal might influence the preparation of other proposals, which would be in the same pool for when I am applying to this program. This might decrease the probability that my proposal would be recommended for funding. I imagine you can see where I’m coming from. Nonetheless, I have written a fair amount elsewhere about the approach to international research mentorship that is in this award, and if you’re interested, I can point you in that direction. Likewise, I can share with you all of the results published from my IRES awards.
So why didn’t I send this email? Why should I when this would just remind her of her threat to submit an FOIA request?
I have a number of thoughts about this, which I’ll present in an unordered list. (I’m rather busy in the field, so I don’t have the opportunity to construct some good prose.) I’ve numbered these thoughts because if people want to refer to them, this is a handy shortcut.
- The tone of this email (above) sounds unfriendly, I read it as “We are going to do the FOIA request but why don’t you just spare us the trouble and give it to us anyway.” I feel a little bit like I just visited by a stereotypical but incompetent mobster giving me an offer I can’t refuse. I don’t know if this is a rational response, but that’s how I feel. If you really want someone to share something freely, then how is it helpful to remind them of the fact that you have the right to demand it if a person refuses to share it freely?
Taxpayers in the United States definitely should have the right to learn how our money is being spent on research sponsored by our government.
I’ve received two actual FOIA requests in the past several years.
When scientists planning to submit grants to federal agencies submit FOIA requests for grants from other scientists, the goal is not to learn about how federal money is being spent. The goal is to learn grantsmanship approaches that are helpful to crack the nut of a particular program. When I get an FOIA request, it’s transparently a request to learn about how I got funded, not to learn about the activities I am conducting.
In addition to the FOIA requests, I get a few unsolicited emails per year from people who I don’t know, asking me to send them copies of my grants.
I have shared my grants with some of my colleagues. I’m not totally against sharing, but I’m not inclined to do so if it might possibly reduce the chance that I’ll get funds to support research opportunities for students in my university. Yes, I am looking out for the students in my university over the other students at other universities.
It’s perfectly fine for people to ask for something. It’s also perfectly fine to not grant that request if it’s not required of you.
If I did want to share my grants for public viewing, then I’d post them on my website. And this is something that people have done. Thanks for the altruism! (Meanwhile, I feel like research programs at my university need to salvage every little edge they can get.)
Who wants to do anything that might harm their own funding success, especially when funding rates are so low?
I once was involved in a potential collaboration in which the junior scientists leading the project were about to submit an FOIA request to obtain a grant from a highly successful college (who we all knew, I think). They didn’t realize that the PI would be made aware of the FOIA request. I convinced them that it would be a lot nicer just to ask this PI for the grant, and if they didn’t want to provide it, then I imagine the PI would probably resent the FOIA request for the grant.
I don’t resent the fact that anybody submitted an FOIA request for copies of my grants, I accept this as a fact of doing business with the government. Having this mechanism is better than having all grant proposals officially hidden from the public.
If I was not planning additional submissions to this program, I’d have little problem with sharing my proposal text.
I did give the person who sent me this email the courtesy of redacting specific identifying information from this post, when I wasn’t required to do so (as the email she sent is not a private communication). It is also interesting to note that the person who requested the grant from me, on behalf of someone else, did not name the person who requested the proposal. So in this case, there is this asymmetry in which they want to know the details of every little thing about my program, but I can’t even know the requester’s name? That seems cheesy to me.
I did think about sharing a very early draft of the proposal, with all kinds of typos and bad ideas and incoherencies and such, and let them think it was the final draft. That’d be funny. But it’d take more than a few moments and be kinda jerky, but entertaining that idea for a moment was fun.
Under what circumstances do you voluntarily share your proposals? Have you gotten an FOIA request, and how did you feel about it?