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Allow Me to Peruse Your Grant

This is one that I certainly hadn’t heard of until a few days ago. According to this article, academic scientists are using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get a look at other people’s grant applications.

In the past few years, some scientists have complained that FOIA has been weaponized by activists and special interest groups to “bully” and “harass” researchers involved in climate science, animal experiments, and other controversial work.

But when it comes to grant proposals — in which scientists detail their scientific plans, so they can win government funding — the most common requesters are not bullying political activists, but individuals at academic institutions looking to get an upper hand, a BuzzFeed News analysis has found.

Through our own FOIA requests, BuzzFeed News obtained logs of all the FOIA requests received by two major science agencies. Over the past 10 years, the NIH, the main federal funder of biomedical research, has received more than 13,300 requests for grant proposals, these records show. In 2015 and 2016, nearly 30% of these requests came from other academic institutions.

And the proportion at NSF is even higher – they’ve had fewer requests, but half the requests have come from inside academia. It turns out that some of the requests have come from university offices who want to look at what the successful grants in a field look like, so they can get their faculty trained up to have better success in applying for funding. But others (as you will not doubt have guessed) may well be from other labs who just want to go over the grant proposal in detail to see what people are up to.

As you’ll see from the rest of the article, there are a lot of surprised people in this story. They’re surprised that their (approved) grant applications are subject to FOIA requests, and they’re surprised that they don’t get a chance to redact what they see as sensitive information. (Legally, there are very few reasons to be able to do that, and unless commercial trade secrets are involved, everything is likely going to go out in the clear). They’re also surprised, in some cases, that they didn’t just get asked for copies of the grant applications directly, which some of them (but I’ll certainly bet not all) said that they’d have been glad to provide.

But others cheerfully admit to FOIA-ing without thinking twice, pointing out that they’d tried writing to people and never heard back. Even if someone does get around to sending the grant application, it can take a lot longer than just going through the government route. The examples in the article are almost all from people and institutions who want to use these applications as models – smaller schools, younger faculty – but you do have to wonder how many times FOIA gets used for competitive purposes.

Is it ethical to do that? I’d say that the first thing to do is for someone to write to the grantee, but I can understand how that might seem strange or awkward. I see no problem in looking at these applications to figure out what the good ones look like, of course. Using them for competitive intelligence, though, is a much tougher call, but it’s important to remember that a funded grant application is a document of the federal government, and that other US citizens are entitled to see it unless it falls into one of the exemption categories. Those are things like national security, law enforcement, privileged communication between agencies, and so on – there’s a “personal privacy” exemption as well, but an NIH grant definitely does not fall under that heading. I think that the ethical question would be an easier call if more people realized what public documents these are – it’s the “sneaky blindsiding” aspect of it that seems worst, and a lot of that would go away if everyone were fully informed.

You may not think of a successful grant as a disclosure, but guess what? That’s the other side of getting public funding. The unanswered question in all this is how much good these FOIA requests are doing the recipients. Presumably it’s worth something for beginning faculty members, or those at less well-funded institutions, to see how it’s done. But for people who want to know just what others close to their own research are getting funded for, does that help any? Grant applications all hit the real world once the work starts, naturally, and the actual course of the research is going to diverge from what’s on the form. Dealing with that gap is a central fact of academic life. And there’s the fact that many big-name labs, depending on the field, are also getting funding from private sources, who don’t necessarily have to tell anyone what they’re doing with their cash – that’s between them and their grantees.

Here are some questions for the audience, then: did this article come as a surprise? And does this practice make you furious, or just make you shrug?

54 comments on “Allow Me to Peruse Your Grant”

  1. SirWired says:

    As an outsider, it boggles my mind that researchers would think grant requests, much less the applications behind approved grants, would be private. It’s public funds being asked for, and as a member of the public, I’d be rather upset if the applications for “my” money that’s being handed out were private.

    Maybe many (or even most) of the requests for this information have nothing to do with government transparency, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles when you ask for government money.

    1. Carl 'SAI' Mitchell says:

      Also an outsider, and also not surprised.

      Anything you say to the government is likely to be a matter of public record, and when it isn’t there are generally some pretty obvious signs.

      EVERYTHING you transmit online should be considered public unless secured by end-to-end encryption. And even then you should assume that the recipient will get hacked. If it’s on a computer connected to the internet it’s vulnerable.

    2. tangent says:

      Another outsider. I would have assumed that taxpayer-funded research proposals are posted on a government website — they’re not? I would have no expectation about non-funded proposals though.

      If I knew they weren’t posted, I have to admit that FOIA might not have occurred to me, though if you raised the question I’d say yes, why wouldn’t these be subject to it if cop bodycam videos are.

  2. me says:

    Does the grant recipient get notified when there is an FOIA request on one of their proposals? Also, are the grant recipients told who made the request?

    Asking for a friend, of course.

    1. Mzspectrum says:

      Yes, we get notified and are provided a couple weeks to ask for redactions (see trade secrets etc part above).

      I got FOIAd by a grant consulting company. Process was painless (2 emails, 1 signature). However, Not sure how I feel about the grant probably getting repurposed to make someone else money, and I can’t imagine they would give me attribution.

  3. Sok Puppette says:

    As a non-scientist member of the public, it makes me furious to think that anybody *would* be furious.

    Of course it’s ethical to look at what’s being done with public money. If that helps out “competitors”, that’s GOOD for the public, because in the end better research gets done overall. Nobody is obliged to fund anybody’s career building exercise or help anybody play politics.

    Frankly, if the public is going to fund even part of something, “commercial trade secrets” shouldn’t be protected either. And it is inappropriate for a university to allow its employees to take ANY grant, public or private, if it’s contingent on keeping anything secret. Secret work is not what universities are for. They’re supposed to be institutions of learning and discourse for the common good, not contract research labs. I realize that faculty tend to forget that they’re employees, but that’s what they are.

    You see the same entitled attitude in the idea that an investigator “owns” data created using public money, and in the outrage at the idea that a funder might force those data to be shared on any terms other than when-and-as that investigator happens to choose to publish results.

    All of these attitudes seem to be artifacts of a deeply dysfunctional way of organizing and evaluating research and the contributions of researchers.

    … and, yes, I realize that the whole system is the entrenched “way things work” and it’s been going on forever. That doesn’t make it good. I can’t seem to stop being shocked at how many academic scientists think they’re entitled to money with no strings attached. If you want to do secret research, buy your own Transylvanian castle.

    1. Ian Malone says:

      I think this is missing the point a bit. Of course this stuff should be public for accountability purposes. But it’s not unusual in other areas to get some kind of priority period for this kind of thing. data consortia are a similar example, in Europe institutions can collaborate on studies to build up a data set, to be publicly released after the researchers involved have had a chance to publish research on the information they have spent significant effort gathering. I don’t know how this works in the US, potentially a FOIA request could be used to force early release of the data? Because a big chunk of the cost is going to go into the data acquisition, while researcher’s performance (and therefore future success in grant applications) is measured in publications, not data produced. Academics want to produce data, they want to produce research, asking them to do it in a way where their effort (which you’ve paid for) is wasted and in particular produces no outcome for them is inefficient and unfair.

      1. Sok Puppette says:

        I’m not talking about public accountability. That’s only one issue. And I understand everything you say.

        The value in letting people see what other people are doing is that it may help them to do it better. Sure, FOIA requests are a pretty inefficient way of spreading that information, but they’re at least a way, and they’re a way that people can’t “opt out of” for political or careerist reasons.

        I am attaching a positive value to the removal of “some kind of priority”.

        When I say “All of these attitudes seem to be artifacts of a deeply dysfunctional way of organizing and evaluating research and the contributions of researchers.”, I am saying that a system that creates a need or desire for that kind of priority is a broken system at its roots. The fact that “researcher’s performance (and therefore future success in grant applications) is measured in publications, not data produced.” is an ERROR to be fixed.

        You have not-particularly-sane performance metrics, and a fairly inefficient system of information dissemination, inherited from an ancient world where everybody worked as an individual and information moved slowly. That world is gone and it’s long past time to come up with something better.

        Instead of fixing their own broken system, however, many scientists seem to be obsessed with distorting the world around those systems so that they don’t have to change.

        1. hmmmm says:

          >> The fact that “researcher’s performance (and therefore future success in grant applications) is measured in publications, not data produced.” is an ERROR to be fixed.

          I have worked for a PI for whom I was mostly producing data for the next grant application/extention and nothing has ever been published. Guess why? Because grant ‘data’ are not peer-reviewed

        2. Ian Malone says:

          Unanalysed data is not research output, and the idea of a PI (someone who generates grant applications) is that they are a research manager. There’s a positive cycle to be maintained, the experiments you do and the data you generate from them has to actually be useful, which you know from previous experience at doing the analysis. The picture isn’t a single researcher sitting at their desk, doing all the experiments, hoarding the data and writing it up, it’s a team of people who work and exchange ideas and contribute their different specialisms. Are publications rated too highly against doing the actual experiments and sharing data? Yes.
          Another question is at what level of probity does it stop becoming useful and start becoming a hinderance? Say you’re doing a psychology study, should you be expected to make each participant’s results available as they’re collected? Assume there are no privacy issues with the data, that’s slow and tedious work, people do it because they are interested in the research question. If anyone can just walk up while they’re in the middle of the study, grab their data and publish something half-baked with it? Aside from worrying about stealing their thunder it also harms their credibility. In the commercial world, your investors are able to hold you to account, but even if they have large stakes you’ll generally have agreements in place to stop them running off with your business halfway through and setting up on their own.

        3. Bill Scott says:

          I disagree. I think many scientists would LOVE to be in a world where seeking out new knowledge and data were ends in themselves, and still others who would love if our educational institutions were for the purpose of educating and enriching students’ intellectually, more than they were profit and industry-serving. Still, this is another topic entirely…

          I’m A-OK with grant proposals/applications being made public, especially a period of time after they are submitted/awarded. Not redacting anything seems problematic to me, however, as I’m not all that comfortable with my teacher-wife’s name and work address and/or home address being attached to something just about anyone can access.

    2. Pup socket says:

      This is hopelessly naive. There are deep problems with the current methods of distributing resources to scientists ─ in essence, the market where research is bought and sold ─ but it is equally ridiculous to wish away the economics of that market and pretend that there are magical solutions a stone’s throw away if only we looked for them.

      To be a bit more precise with an example, consider the case where group A, full of highly qualified researchers, wants to study object X (microorganism, compound, what have you) and includes sensitive, unpublished preliminary data in a grant proposal that gets funded. Imagine further that group B, less qualified but always looking for a free ride, gets a look at the unpublished data, runs some half-assed experiments on object X, and pushes them through to some mediocre journal. This lessens the impact of the high-quality research of group A, detracts from their grant deliverables, and makes it harder for them to get funding in the future.

      Now, this is bad for group A, for sure, but more importantly, it’s bad for science: I, as a member of the public, want research funding to go to the high-quality groups, both established and up-and-coming, that can use those funds to establish valuable infrastructure and long-term projects. Aspects of funding structures that encourage free-riders just detract from that goal.

      Now, that’s not to say that the information shouldn’t be public ─ it’s just to emphasize that timing matters, and very much so. You’ll find very few researchers claiming that they “own” data; instead, what they’ll tend to ask for is an embargo on the data that they’ve worked hard to obtain, which becomes public once they’ve had the chance to analyze it. The same is true with grant proposals: it’s in the public interest to detail the summaries and the planned impact of funded grants, but it’s also perfectly reasonable (and works towards getting the taxpayer their money’s worth) to withhold aspects of the planned approach until the grant is substantially under way.

      You say you’re ‘furious’ at what you perceive as ‘entitled’ attitudes, but frankly, you come across as pretty entitled yourself. Make actual positive proposals about how the economics of research can be structured, or accept that it’s a hard problem and that the current solutions are better than no solution at all.

  4. Hap says:

    At least with patent applications, though, the work for which the privilege is being requested has already (likely) been done. With grants, you’re asking people to submit their novel ideas (because if they have been done previously, they likely were funded under a grant that shouldn’t have included that work). If you want to give people grants based (in part) on their novel ideas, then either you need to protect the ideas or you’re only going to be able to judge people on their past ideas, which makes it kind of tough for new people to get grants.

    Can someone get records through FOIA of a process that is being done – can they get records of a regulation in the process of being written, for example? If not, grant applications are probably reasonably analogous.

    1. Isidore says:

      I think that in this case the FOIA applies to funded grant proposals, so the analogy would be with the final regulation or enacted law, which is, of course, public.

      1. NJBiologist says:

        That makes me less comfortable. The numbers are ~1300 requests/year; NIH receives ~55k applications a year. That’s about 2% of requests. However, at a funding rate around 17%, 9350 funded grants means there are enough requests to cover 14% of all funded grants. That feels like a lot of people who can’t be satisfied by reading the abstracts in Reporter.

  5. scientist says:

    So presumably any chemical structure in a grant application would need to be patented before or right after award or it is lost. That would seem to preempt much of academic drug discovery.

    1. myma says:

      I was thinking the same thing – would this count as “public disclosure”? Can one truly redact the grant?
      Also, grants are not just academics. There are SBIR and STTR for small start-ups, and even larger ones from NIH and BARDA for big companies, eg medical countermeasures grants piles of money for vaccine stockpiles for anthrax and pandemic flu and such.

      1. Isidore says:

        The latter would probably fall under national security and so subject to redaction.

        1. myma says:

          True that.
          My comment, poorly worded, was to point out that more than academics receive NIH funding grants, also companies big and small.

      2. Tudor Oprea says:

        I redacted, with NIH approval.

  6. cash for science says:

    Potentially the FOIA-ing can be used to challenge grant awards, rather than trying to get “competitive” information. For example, Institution B submits a proposal for a big pot of NIH cash, but loses to Institution A (the grantee), though the scores of the competing proposals are essentially equivalent. Actually, the overall score of Institution B could be better than A, but Institution A eventually gets the award through final vetting (brokered by internal NIH grant administration), including a vetting of the review process and scoring itself – peer review can be a messy business. In short, a lot of subjective voodoo goes into the grant review process and the eventual choice of grantee. FOIA-ing is a means for Institution B to vet due process, but with things like this it can also be abused.

  7. Isidore says:

    The issue of members of the public being able to see what research public money funds aside, I am just not convinced by anyone who complains about others stealing his/her ideas by being able to take a look at a funded grant application. Given the grant cycles, by the time a copy cat is able to marshal the resources to put together and submit a grant application duplicating already funded work, the original grantee should have advanced considerably using the already allocated funds, and if he/she has not then someone else better be able to take a crack at it.

  8. Bicoid says:

    This happened to my PI ten years ago. At first, we couldn’t tell who the person requesting the grant proposals was, but the lawyer on the FOIA request was associated with a university that had only one faculty member who was just starting out working on our microorganism. Also included on the FOIA request were the names of PIs at other universities that also worked on our bug. So I contacted the heads of those labs, and together we wrote to the lawyer expressing our distaste that his institution’s faculty member was using a FOIA request to acquire data in this manner, instead of, you know, collaborating or JUST TALKING TO US.

    The FOIA request was then pulled.

  9. MoBio says:

    To me it’s a non-issue for the reasons stated above by others, though in favor of letting the folks who paid for the research (taxpayers) actually have the opportunity to find out what they paid for.

    The reality is (as stated above) it is typically a year or more from when the grant was submitted to when it is actually funded and most of what is in the grant (at least mine) is ‘old news’.

  10. popcorn_lover says:

    File this under the “Now why didn’t I think of that?” category and use it in the future!

  11. Dcm says:

    Why go through all that effort when you get an endless supply of candidacy exam proposals to pilfer

  12. MrRogers says:

    FWIW, there is a place on your cover page where you indicate whether there is confidential information in your proposal. If you say yes, you’re expected to mark the confidential portions so that they can be excluded from a FOIA request. I know at least one investigator who routinely marks all 13 pages of the Approach section as confidential.

  13. CR says:

    There is already a mechanism to search for funded grants and see what was funded with a description of the work (NIH Reporter). Does the “public” really need to see the entire grant in order to know what their “money” is funding? I, personally, don’t think so.

    1. Emjeff says:

      Not your decision to make. This is a free society, and we, as a people are entitled to see how the government spends our money. There’s nothing I hate worse than some pompous academic who thinks he’s qualified to decide what the public should know.

      1. CR says:

        We don’t see everything that our government spends our money on, so, please stop with the sanctimonious act. The public have access to what is funded through the NIH Reporter.

        1. Emjeff says:

          Sure we do, and there is nothing sanctimonious about it. The U.S. budget is freely available, if you want to read all 64,000 pages of it. There are legitimate reasons for keeping some things secret, like national security, but NIH does not fall under that category. Stop pretending that because you’re a professor, you get to have special treatment – you don’t.

          1. CR says:

            Again, the NIH Reporter is there for all to see what is being funded. We may see what’s in the budget but we don’t see every detail, which is what you are suggesting should happen with grant proposals. Unless, of course, you are someone without novel ideas and simply want to take from someone else. From your snide remarks about academics that wouldn’t surprise me. I’m sorry you have some hang up with professors, that’s not my problem it’s yours and hopefully it makes you happy to feel you are above us lowly professors. Good for you.

    2. Tudor Oprea says:

      RePorter is a useful tool. We text mine it, and report protein related funding.
      Pharos.nih.gov

      But it’s the abstract only, not the entire grant. So I guess FOIA has its (mis)uses…

  14. Barry says:

    A prominent chemist at Ohio State University got into hot water 30yrs ago for exploiting ideas revealed in grant proposals he was reviewing. I think he was barred from the review process for some years.

  15. steve says:

    You’re all talking about academic grants and ignoring the fact that many businesses apply for SBIRs and STTRs and assume that their proprietary information is kept as such. This is no less than industrial espionage and may involve foreign governments. At the very least grantwriters should be made aware of such requests and given opportunities to black out sensitive information. Aside from proprietary material, grant applications have personal information – backgrounds, addresses, phone numbers – and therefore these FOIA requests subject the applicants to identity theft or harassment.

    1. Chemcat says:

      You have a good point about how access to personal information in a grant could be misused by others for identity theft or harassment. Even if it does not happen often, the possibility is unsettling.

    2. kriggy says:

      But they can easily remove the personal information? Just put the name and university of the grant applicant/recipient and remove everything else. They dont realy need to share their personal data like home adress or wife name or anything like that

  16. JB says:

    Yet another reason I need to leave academia. The backstabbing is crazy.

  17. milkshaken says:

    Imagine someone who used to work for a small biotech company that was involved in a seriously sketchy stuff. A part of it was exaggerating and misrepresenting the company technology – knowing full well that the biology did not work as advertised, and covering it up. Imagine that the management was willing to go as far as terminating a fellow biologist who produced disagreeable data that did not fit the propaganda, then settling out of court with the biologist. Now, it turns out that the company won several major research grants. Obviously that ex-employee would be delighted to obtain the grant applications from the former employers through FOIA, to see with his own eyes what stuff they were telling. You can actually do qui tam lawsuit in a fraud case like this, and win a portion of the penalty imposed by the government.

  18. jbosch says:

    Regarding the topic university employee, at some institutions the PI is expected to cover 80% of his/her salary, so this is problematic when you provide pristine, original ideas in your R01 proposal and somebody else takes that information to either perform the experiments you proposed or has some additional own information paired with your preliminary data that then makes so much more sense. Like the missing piece of a puzzle kindly provided by competitor A.

    I have marked various paragraph and figures with confidential tags. But also reviewers of your grant are always a potential leak. At least they could get inspired by whatever somebody writes and proposes.

  19. dearieme says:

    Stealing other people’s scientific ideas is old hat; only the technique seems to be new.

  20. dearieme says:

    I wonder about the effect on incentives. How might a researcher pursue funds without putting his ideas at such risk of theft?

    Just another reason, I suppose, to say “bugger science” and go to make a living in some other way.

  21. DrOcto says:

    Benefit of the doubt on this one.

    Have you considered that they may just be trying to AVOID working in areas that other researchers are actively already pursuing, so as not to waste their students precious time.

  22. Victor I. Pulver says:

    I’m not surprised – something similar has happened in the news industry. Some organizations have used the FOIA to request the FOIA requests of other organizations, letting them see what stories the competition is working on, and sometimes scooping the target. Trying to find stories on FOIA requests of FOIA requests is somewhat difficult, but I did find a Poynter story (referencing a Washington Post article). The subject of the WaPo story is the Open Government initiative, and that some agencies were going to release to the public the results of FOIA requests. The Poynter article, titled “The government is now giving away your FOIA scoops”, goes into the scoop issue, and says:

    “Of course, it has always been possible to scoop other journalists digging through government documents: Enterprising (and sneaky) reporters can simply request FOIA requests filed by other news organizations. But this new policy will eliminate some of the guesswork involved in figuring out what rival publications are up to.”

    https://www.poynter.org/news/government-now-giving-away-your-foia-scoops

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/federal-eye/wp/2015/07/10/white-house-to-make-public-records-more-public/?utm_term=.9e0f97adab87

    1. tangent says:

      That’s a cute one, but I’m surprised it’s fast enough to be effective in the news business. The “leading” reporter must be, what, some months ahead? By the time the “following” reporter gets anything back, I’d think the story would be in print unless it’s a year-long research effort.

      (The flip side of which is, this tends to put a time limit on investigative journalism, so you can’t do that year-long research without getting snooped.)

  23. Isidore says:

    The bottom line is that FOIA disclosures of one’s grant application is a theoretical risk associated with getting government money and one lives with it. It is a theoretical risk because, at this point, there’s no evidence that anyone’s research has been appropriated by someone else as a result of an FOIA request and as I and others pointed out above there are practical reasons why much of the time such underhanded approach wouldn’t work anyway. However, if one wishes to reduce such very small risks even further one can self-fund or seek non-government funding or try to shoehorn one’s research into some national security category, all of which will not eliminate the possibility of someone stealing one’s research via old-fashioned spying or snooping, which is how pretty much all research is stolen these days, along with people being careless and posting unpublished data on their websites.

  24. Arda says:

    There is a difference between obtaining a grant and working as an employee for a government agency. The public absolutely owns the data generated in its agencies. A grant is an investment the public makes in order to improve society or stimulate economic growth. The data should be made available eventually but it’s not government IP. Some funders are now requiring publication in open access journals which seems to be a better system to me.

  25. the real Stephen Frye says:

    My take – the people that get their best ideas from reading someone else’s grant are really not competition. Seems pathetic and not much fun. The whole joy of academics is to work in unexplored territory. Of course, someone else is likely to be interested in similar territory, but why would you want to pollute your own ideas with theirs? (Or realize you are hopelessly outclassed.) FOIA my proposals all you like (pretty sure no one does) – lot’s of the proposed work evaporates with the first set of experiments, and then you follow your nose.

    1. milkshaken says:

      You would be wrong. Leo Paquette was a genuinely great chemist, known as up and coming genius, like MacMillan and Baran these days. Then people noticed he was often working on the same ida as they, except he got there fist because his grants were always approved. He was sitting on the board approving grants… The scandal was quietly brewing until Paquette got sloppy and submitted a grant application with entire pieces of text lifted verbatim from someone else’s grant application. He of course blamed it on a lazy postdoc who wrote his grant application while having access to other people grant submissions “for training purposes”

      The scandal really affected his research because he was banned from federal funding for 2 years, and kicked out from the committee approving grants. I heard that Paquette group was recycling old silica gel for running columns

  26. K2 says:

    “Over the past 10 years, the NIH, the main federal funder of biomedical research, has received more than 13,300 requests for grant proposals, these records show. ” What percent of these FOIA requests actually move forward?

    1. Tudor Oprea says:

      In my experience, NIH sent me reminders twice, before I complied. I was given a deadline, and they were going to send it, if I didn’t.
      So… most of them?

  27. Zach says:

    This reminds me of the Haumea controversy:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_E._Brown#Haumea_controversy

    Michael Brown’s group at Caltech discovered Haumea, a beyond-Pluto planet, and continued to observe it for several months as they put their paper together. They submitted an abstract for a conference talk that included enough information to reconstruct where they had been pointing their telescopes, and presto! they were “scooped” on their own discovery.

    Openness is an end state, not a description of every single second in the scientific process.

  28. Tudor Oprea says:

    I had a FOIA request on a successful grant. I blacked out about 20%, sprinkled on several places. Sent photocopies of the blackouts, since the printed version was still see-through.
    I had permission from NIH to do so, since these were unpublished, sensitive materials. I didn’t hear back from them… but didn’t expect to.
    I was bothered by the experience, but the blackout process helped.

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