FOIA for fun and profit

Sep 05 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

"I'm not saying you should do it, but I understand"

Recently folks were all a twitter about a BuzzFeed article on science grants being FOIA'd. This isn't a new new thing. My googles turn up a bunch of articles from at least 2009 including some on this here website. Understandably there seem to be mixed feeling about this. Some folks may be targeted by outside groups looking to get "dirt". I get that concern. The recent article is more about that guy you see at conferences FOIAing your grant. There may be some concerns about 'scooping' the intellectual property for your Opto start up. Black out as needed, I suppose.

Me, I personally wouldn't do it or suggest that people FIOA grants.

But.

I think I understand why someone might see this as a useful or even necessary thing to do. When I read the quotes from the articles it seems less like someone trying to jump in and scoop Optogenetics 3.0 for Nature papers and profit. It seems more like junior scientists who feel like they have no idea why some grants get funded and others don't. I think most would agree that reading grants is useful in writing them. That's the basic logic of NIH's little "sit in on grant review" mechanism. Learning about the grant game is useful in playing it. The entire grant enterprise is a bewildering black box. I can't emphasize that enough. I empathize with folks who might feel desperate for information. Not everyone has these ideal mentoring experiences when they ghost write R01s and compile modular budgets as grad students.

"Almost all of the FOIA requesters who responded to BuzzFeed News said they were not interested in the specific plans detailed in the grant proposals, and simply wanted to learn how a successful bid for funding was put together."

I don't know these folks so who can say what there situation or reasons are. Maybe they just like bureaucratic mechanisms. Maybe they're jerks. It's worth considering why they may feel the need to resort to this. Maybe the flow of information and how mentoring "ought to work" isn't working for them. This seems mostly seems like another example of what people do to navigate the fog of war in their own science careers.

7 responses so far

  • Rheophile says:

    This was fascinating - there must be tens of hidden stories in these FOIA requests! The former postdoc who FOIAd her adviser's grant, in particular, seems a somewhat sharp sign of a relationship that is not as strong as the former adviser believes it to be.

    As I'm starting, I have lots of new colleagues invested in my success and happy to share grants - though I suppose it's reading this site and others that makes me so willing to ask for them. What would happen if I felt I couldn't even ask a former adviser for a grant!?

  • Another Anon says:

    As someone who is currently writing grants in a different field to that in which I was trained, where my preliminary data is my major claim to expertise, I felt a bit uneasy when I read the Buzzfeed article, particularly because I'm competing against a number of much better funded companies in Industry.

    On the other hand, despite my many attempts to learn grantsmanship (if its something you can even learn) or even read successful grants during my graduate training, I could imagine a scenario where my fellow lab members and I would have FOIAed our own PIs grants. So I feel a bit torn about the whole thing.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    I have been lucky to have friends and colleagues share their funded grants with me. It would feel strange making an FOIA request, but this comes from a place of relative privilege.

  • David says:

    I have no sympathy for the folks complaining about their proposals being FOIA'd. You are asking the government to fund you, the public has a right to know what the government funds, therefore your submission is a public record and open to public access. If you have a problem with this, don't ask for public funds.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    This happened to me when I was an assistant professor. It led to quite a discussion on drug monkey's blog (where is he anyway?).

    http://drugmonkey.scientopia.org/2009/07/25/letter-from-a-reader-foia-requests-for-funded-r01s/

  • drugmonkey says:

    To the extent anyone objects on the basis that it feels like plagiarism or an unfair leg up, I say pfaaah. I was fortunate to get sample grants from a variety of people early in my career. I pass mine out to trainees and colleagues that ask. Pay it forward, eh?

  • Hal Caswell says:

    You may not be aware (I was not aware) that there is at least one journal that will publish your research proposal (also other kinds of stuff). That would be one way to deal with anxiety about being scooped. The list of possible complications is long .....

    The journal is Research Ideas and Outcomes: https://riojournal.com/

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