Thursday, May 17, 2007

FOIA

I got a very surprising email this morning from the NSF. Someone made a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of one of my NSF grant proposals. Now, I know that technically this is allowed - in principle, if someone wanted to, they could get (via FOIA) copies of their direct competitor's federal grants (with certain privacy information like social security numbers redacted). However, I've never actually heard of anyone doing this in practice - it's just not cricket, so to speak. The NSF gave me the name of the person, and I'm left to wonder: did they do this just to see an example of a funded proposal? Why didn't they contact me directly? Did they know that NSF was going to tell me about this? It's all perfectly legal, but I find it unsettling, and I can't pinpoint the precise reason. Has this ever happened to anyone else out there?

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

So if someone just asked you for a copy, would you provide it?

Doug Natelson said...

That would depend a little on the exact circumstances. Probably so; I have in the past when a junior colleague wanted to see one. If one of my direct competitors wanted a copy, I'd want to know why, though they're a possible reviewer anyway.

Aaron said...

In Michael Chricton's new book Next, he speaks of this sort of thing. Two junior geneticists submit a grant proposal which is rejected. Then, a few months later, they find out one of the prominent scientists in their field (he was, most assuredly, on the review committee for the grant) is doing exactly the same experiment in their proposal. I wonder if this sort of thing actually ever happens.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I think most likely scenario (and since you know the identity, you may know better) is to get a successful proposal to get an idea of writing style/level of depth/breadth, as well as examples of teaching component.

I never requested anything from NSF, but I did get a few examples of successful proposals from colleagues in preparation for my NSF CAREER application. There is not much information out there, and I was admittedly pretty clueless as to what goes into such proposal.

I can see concerns that ideas could be copied, but I wouldn't worry - chances of someone getting funded on original idea are low enough, so that chances of getting funded with a copy-cat proposal are essentially zero - assuming of course people at NSF can recognize the copy-cat. In any case, I would be flattered, rather than paranoid, if I were you.

Dan M said...

Doug, I have to agree with IP. Flattered is the appropriate reaction. It's odd, but doesn't strike me as sinister.

Doug Natelson said...

I don't think it's sinister either, and "idea theft" is not an issue in the vast majority of things like this. I'm sure IP is right, but it just weirded me out a bit. Still, as Greg Boebinger once said about the Chinese allegedly trying to get secrets from Los Alamos, "It's a kind of peer review. You should start worrying when they don't want to know what you're working on."

Kun said...

Maybe you can ask NSF directly about this issue...

lost academic said...

You know, it probably seems more sinister put in this light, but I'm currently in the land of regulation and policy for some strange reason, and usually FOIA is one of the first ways a person from certain areas will think of, or advise another to get information. (Admittedly sometimes we DON'T like to use that route for exactly the reason that it becomes a matter of record that we asked, but it's a surefire way to get what you're looking for.) In my current field, we would think it highly inappropriate to ask _you_ for the grant proposal and literally have gone without it rather than do so. Strange, but that's how it is!

DrugMonkey said...

Did you ever figure out what this was all about?

Pascale Hammond Lane said...

@Aaron:
I do know of a situation where this occurred in real life. I lost all respect for this person when I heard about it. It is really hard to prove, though. Yes, s/he was on the study section that reviewed the unfunded study. Yes, this was proposed in that study. But can we really know for sure that their lab wasn't moving in this direction anyway? In this case, someone in the lab was able to confirm this asshattery, but s/he wouldn't bring it to light because our society is so "rewarding" to whistleblowers.