Grant applications and FOIA

Doron Zeilberger seems to be thinking along similar lines to me (apparently by coincidence, though he does link to one of my posts). He’s willing to take things a step further than me, though, and filled out a FOIA request for grant proposal of a colleague who declined a request to share his.

While I don’t plan on filling out a bunch of such requests (apparently somewhat unpleasant for the recipient), I think this makes a very important point: grant proposals are by law public information. If you don’t want to share their contents, you shouldn’t make them part of the business of the federal government, and thus subject to FOIA. I don’t plan on trying to force peoples’ hands, but I think the world would be a better place if we could change our norms from thinking of grant proposals as something which is by default private to something which is by default public. This has the advantage of having a basis in law.

I think Doron also has a very good answer to why it is beneficial to make such applications public: grant applications are the only time in a person’s life when there is truly a good incentive for writing good exposition. Of course, I can’t really judge the quality of most people’s grant applications, but I suspect the first couple of pages would be pretty educational reading in a lot of cases.

I actually think it’s an interesting thought experiment to ponder the world where the NSF posted peoples’ full proposals online rather than just abstracts; certainly that would be a reasonable thing for them to do. Would people write them differently? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m curious how much support there would be for this idea. There are various accommodations that could be made for people; we could make it opt out, and of course, by the time the grant was approved, a pretty reasonable amount of time would have elapsed, and the delay could be increased.

10 thoughts on “Grant applications and FOIA

  1. Ben, are all grant proposals by law public information? Or only the ones which the government decides to fund? I ask because I don’t remember ever granting the government the right to publish my proposal-but I’ve also not been fortunate enough to have a grant funded, so don’t know if you have to sign some extra paper-work. (I also might have misremembered what I did agree to when I submitted my proposal. That document was hundreds of pages long.)

  2. Pace-

    Short answer: I’m not sure. As they say, IANAL. I suspect the easiest way to find out is to put in a FOIA request for an unfunded proposal and see what happens.

  3. See p. 10 of :

    “NSF releases information about funded proposals, withholding only information personal to Principal Investigator(s) or other persons under Exemption 6 and proprietary information under Exemption 4. Information on unfunded proposals is released only to the submitter of the proposal. Predecisional materials such as reviews are withheld under Exemption 5.”

  4. I have heard of several instances involving grant applications being requested under FOIA. They all involve right-wing advocacy groups fishing for grants on topics they consider vulnerable to ridicule, in order to help them push for defunding of grant agencies. For instance, one of the instances I know of involved cloud computing, a name for a serious research topic that to non-experts might sound silly. For this reason, the NSF people that I’ve talked to have been advocating greater seriousness in proposal titles.

  5. “grant applications are the only time in a person’s life when there is truly a good incentive for writing good exposition.”

    I can’t agree on this. I want people to read my papers because I believe the ideas in them are worthwhile! Better exposition means more people read my papers. Isn’t that a good incentive?

  6. I have to say I strongly disagree with this notion that it is professionally acceptable to go around making FOIA requests. If someone says they’re not comfortable sending you their grant proposal, I think it’s beyond rude to basically say “Well, too bad, I’m going to get it anyway!” I think Zeilberger is way out of line.

    It is all fine and good to say that people *should* credit ideas appropriately, and that there are so many problems to go around that there won’t be poaching. However, the sad truth is that this just isn’t true.

    People put some of their best ideas into their grant proposals. I wouldn’t send mine to a stranger if the projects within weren’t sufficiently well-developed already. I would send (and have sent) them to people I know fairly well, such as my advisor’s other students.

  7. Kelli, to give you more insight on Zeilberger’s opinions: he posted his Opinion 107 asserting that faculty members “deserve to be shot” just after the February 12th, 2010 shooting at the University of Alabama. He posted another opinion where he attacked by name a junior colleague, without revealing at all her side of the story.

  8. I’m not sure I accept the premise that grant proposals are generally better-written than anything else anyone writes.

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