Receiving an FOIA request for your grant


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:

Dr. McGlynn,

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.

  1. 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?

  2. Taxpayers in the United States definitely should have the right to learn how our money is being spent on research sponsored by our government.

  3. I’ve received two actual FOIA requests in the past several years.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.)

  9. Who wants to do anything that might harm their own funding success, especially when funding rates are so low?

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. If I was not planning additional submissions to this program, I’d have little problem with sharing my proposal text.

  13. 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.

  14. 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?

13 thoughts on “Receiving an FOIA request for your grant

  1. I don’t quite understand, I’ve never heard of this before. Another researcher wants to read your successful proposal but that’s not the person who contacted you? Who did contact you, a university bureaucrat? Is there any way to protect against plagiarism besides hoping that reviewers would catch it? I mean you would probably notice if someone copied your proposed research but it seems like they could copy stuff from your intellectual merit and you’d never know.

  2. Usually when I get requests for my proposals, it’s from the PI directly. This time was a bit different, it’s a person working for an organization that (apparently) helps support Sponsored Research Offices, in part by gathering proposals for them at their request. So what I’m guessing – and it’s just a guess – is this: PI is writing a grant for the IRES program. They have a conversation with their SRO about the proposal and it comes up that having a copy of previously funded proposals would help. So then the SRO person contacts this outside organization who asks me for it and threatens me with a FOIA request if I don’t do it.

    In my previous FOIA requests, they came out of the blue from people who didn’t contact me first, and they were from people who I don’t know. My SRO was asked to go through the grant, and to ask me to do so, in the event we wanted to redact any sensitive information, with an explanation about why we would need to remove any specific details.

  3. Wouldn’t the FOIA request go to the government agency who made the grant, not you, the non-government employed PI?

    How common is this anyway? Our administration recently offered to help FOIA a funded proposal, but I have a hard time imagining a situation I’d be comfortable doing so.

  4. It actually does go to NSF. Then they contact my SRO, who contacts me, to make sure we have the opportunity to remove (with clear justification) any sensitive material. I didn’t have any legally justifiable reason for removing anything, I don’t think.

    I honestly have no idea how common it is. But from conversations with a variety of people, who are early- and mid- in their careers, they’ve never heard of it as an option that someone would employ.

    This is interesting – a conversation on Facebook indicates a that folks think this is an abuse of the FOIA law (albeit legally permissible).

  5. I have received a request for a successful NIH proposal that I wrote through FOIA I agree with many of your points including that IT IS about learning how to submit successful proposal (your pt. 4), that by complying you are hurting your own chances in the future (your pt 9 and by extension 12) and that, in this case, without the actual FOIA it is perfectly fine for you to not send them anything. In my case, the FOIA was related to an RFA (not reoccurring) and the proposal itself was, in my view, mostly methodological so I was not giving away any substantive or particularly innovative information, so I was fine passing it along (although I guess I didn’t really have a choice). I do think your reaction (feelings) are appropriate and in the NIH world people rarely share proposals unless it is in the context of a long-standing, close collegial relationship (a mentor of mine sent me a very innovative and new proposal he had just submitted for review for instance) or for a very specific collaboration in which the giver of the information is in line to benefit as well. This is clearly not the case here. In addition, I think it is helpful to know who is making the request. Federal research dollars are not well distributed, with 10 universities consistently receiving 20% of all $40 billion spent annually (see CSUDH is not one of these institutions. Having previously been on faculty there, I know how rare and precious these funds are and, for what it is worth, I wholeheartedly support your reluctance to give anyway any information that might harm future funding. Further, in the NIH world at least, it is not uncommon to get request for assistance from colleagues your don’t know and this comes in a variety of forms. Applicable to your case, the institution or investigator could 1) make you a consultant on their proposal (respectful and mutually beneficial since you are apt to learn something from viewing their proposal), 2) request that you serve as an outside scientific advisory on the proposal/project (less money, but you are not likely to give as much information), 3) pay for you to review the proposal (I don’t get these request often, but it does happen; typically you receive a $500 stipend for this pre-review service), and 4) informally request assistance and thus initiate a collegial relationship. All 4 would have been better than asking a program official to intercede on their behalf. Also, I don’t know how powerful program official are at NSF, but it does place you in an awkward circumstance of having to say no to someone who might be involved in decision making about who reviews your future proposals, who gets recommended for future funding, and what new initiatives are coming down the pike.

  6. I have only shared a proposal when I knew I had no chance of getting it again, like an NSF GRFP or National Geographic YEG. Every request I have received to see one of my successful proposals has been from a colleague or old friend that is not in my immediate research discipline. I’ll have to keep an eye out for this when I enter the real world of academia! Why can’t FOIA just provide an abstract/summary that gives enough “information” about the project but not enough to give away the details of your proposal?

  7. I totally see where you’re coming from on this Terry. And I pretty much agree with you. But I’m a little struck by your reluctance to do anything that might help your competition and so reduce your own future chances of success. I mean, at the margin, how much does you sharing one of your successful grants with one person somewhere affect your chances of future success? Surely the effect is extremely small, right?

    Of course, you could respond “every little helps” (or in this case, “every little hurts”), and you wouldn’t be wrong. But totally anecdotally, I think one unfortunate side effect of increased competition for tenure-track faculty positions and research grants is that people are becoming overly concerned (to the point of paranoia sometimes) about all sorts of little things that aren’t likely to affect their chances enough to be worth worrying about. As I said, totally anecdotal impression, so could well be waaay off base. But thought I’d throw it out there. Again, not saying you’re out of line in being as hesitant as you are to share your successful proposals with others who might apply to the same program you’re planning to apply to in future. I’m just a little surprised to hear that you’re so hesitant and wonder if you’re a little more hesitant than you need to be.

    How far would you take the principle here? I’m guessing you wouldn’t hesitate to do a blog post with grant-writing tips, on the grounds that someone might read it and use the advice to write a grant that would succeed at the expense of one of your own grant applications. And I’m sure you don’t worry that your post on teaching more efficiently indirectly increased competition for grants, by helping your competitors spends less time teaching and more time on grant writing.

    For what it’s worth, here in Canada my EEB colleagues and I have no hesitation about sharing our successful NSERC Discovery Grant proposals with one another, even though we could end up in competition with one another depending on the timing of our renewals. But you could interpret this as an exception that proves the rule, given that success rates are much higher for that program than at NSF or NIH.

  8. Jeremy, I see your point. Here’s more explanation. These grants are for international mentorship program, which brings (mostly) undergraduates to Costa Rica and Australia to work with international scientists on their own projects. Based on what is now rather extensive experience running programs like these, I have a depth of familiarity with the literature relevant to key elements of our program that make it successful. I think my proposals are mighty darn good, in part, because I’ve put a lot of time in learning how to do this well and knowing what the best practices in international mentorship programs look like. And the program doesn’t change radically every three years. So, in short, I think the effect on my chances wouldn’t be minor. But then again, I just struck out on a three more years, and the reviews were rather harsh. (The elements which were loved in previous years, were reviled this time in panel. I have no explanation, but other people who I know also had similar weird experiences with this panel. Still a head scratcher.) Anyway, this has been the bread and butter that’s made a huge difference to students in my department and I’m not the kind of guy that can just make more loaves.

  9. Although the UK has a similar FOIA I’ve not heard of FOI requests being made to British universities for access to grant proposals. I suspect that if it happened, the university authorities would be within their rights to decline the request, citing commercial sensitivity, grants being an important source of funding and all. That’s happened recently at my university in relation to release of committee minutes relating to something that the university senior management deemed to be commercially sensitive, and the decline was accepted.

    What I find appalling in the case you’ve written about, Terry, is the lack of collegiality from the person(s) who would ultimately benefit from seeing your proposal, i.e. the other scientists, assuming that they knew the request was going to be made.

  10. I have received just one FOIA request for a funded NSF proposal. My understanding is that only FUNDED proposals are subject to such a request. I was given the opportunity to redact information from the proposal only if was related to a potential patent application. In my case, a competing research lab filed the FOIA request, and they did not contact me first and simply ask for the proposal. Legally, they were within their rights; ethically, I’d say they were on very shaky ground, especially since they then rushed to publish on the same topic we had written about in our proposal.

  11. “Based on what is now rather extensive experience running programs like these, I have a depth of familiarity with the literature relevant to key elements of our program that make it successful.” I agree that this is a key element of hesitancy in this case. Basically, if they want to copy your homework, it’s hard to be cheerful about passing it over.

  12. Hi Terry – I wanted to offer a different perspective on your FOIA request FB and Small Pond post. As one whose job it is to help faculty members secure external funding, I think it’s professionally responsible to seek copies of funded proposals, I encourage my faculty to do this, and I also help my incredibly overworked faculty members to reach out to PIs to request copies of successful proposals.

    In contrast to the request you received from a research administrator, here’s an example of how I typically make such a request on behalf of faculty member:

    Hello Dr. X,

    I’m currently assisting a faculty member here at [redacted] University, Dr. [redacted], to prepare an NSF [redacted] application for the 201X deadline. [Redacted] University is a small predominantly undergraduate institution located in [City, State].

    Dr. [redacted] has tasked me to find an example or two of successful [redacted] applications from faculty members at other predominantly undergraduate institutions. In a search of the NSF award site I discovered that you received a [redacted] award from the Division of [redacted] in [Year].

    My question: Would you be willing to share a copy of your successful [redacted] application with us? Dr. [redacted]’s research centers on [redacted], which I believe is non-overlapping with your research.

    We would be grateful if you were willing to share a copy of your [redacted] proposal directly with us. However, if you prefer it, we could instead request a copy of your proposal through the NSF’s FOIA Office to allow you to officially redact sensitive pieces of your proposal. Alternatively, if you would prefer that Dr. [redacted] contact you directly to make the request, she’s happy to do that too.

    Thanks very much for considering our request. We are grateful for your help.


    In my requests I try to make it clear that responding to a FOIA request for proposal does have some advantages, namely the ability to redact sensitive material from a funded proposal before it’s shared, giving the PI the ability to remove potentially patentable information, information governed by export control or material transfer, and unpublished or sensitive data.

    Ultimately though, funded NSF proposals are public information that’s meant to be shared with the greater academic community, and in my experience it’s unusual that a previously funded proposal will be in direct competition with a future pending proposal.

    Take, for example, the NSF MRI Program. Six biology, chemistry and physics professors at my university submitted an MRI proposal to acquire a laser scanning confocal microscope (LSCM) for research and training. As part of the proposal planning, we requested copies of successful MRI LSCM proposals from four institutions comparable to ours; in this instance we contacted PIs directly to seek copies of proposals, and PIs shared their successful proposals directly with us, voluntary redacting sensitive research information before sending us copies. All of these institutions had already acquired their equipment with NSF MRI funding, and our equipment acquisition MRI proposal did not (and could not) compete with the funded proposals PIs shared with us. My team of co-PIs conducted a gap analysis of the five proposals compared to the MRI program solicitation. As a result my co-PIs created a “best fit” proposal outline to guide the development of our institution’s MRI proposal. Reviewing and discussing multiple funded proposals also helped my six co-PIs gel as a team and create a successful proposal development strategy, which led us to receive MRI funding on our first submission.

    I’ve come to categorize FOIA requests into a similar bucket with manuscript peer-review and rejection or proposal peer-review and rejection. There’s a well-defined and defensible protocol for each of these activities, and although it can be a bit of an unpleasant zinger to get a rejection letter or FOIA request, it’s a natural and routine part of our academic lives. Successful academics take these requests and notices in stride, respond professionally and efficiently, and move quickly back to one’s research and teaching passions.

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