What If Someone FOIAs Your Grant Application?

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Researchers tend to think of their grant proposals as carefully guarded information that will be seen only by peer reviewers in strictest confidence. Little do they realize that anybody can get their hands on a funded federal grant application by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The blog Drug Monkey has a long discussion of this issue prompted by a scientist with the National Institutes of Health funding who was hit with such a request and was surprised that he had to comply:

I am an assistant professor (about 3 years into starting my lab) at a research university. On Monday of this week, I received an email from a freedom of information act specialist saying that a secretary at another research university had requested a copy of my recently funded R01 and that I had 5 days to comply. I called the secretary (who was requesting for an anonymous physician) and explained to her that there was a ton of unpublished data and a research plan for the lab that I thought when writing was confidential. ... I called the FOIA specialist and found out that I could redact portions of my grant but my PO would have to approve the redactions. I found out that this mechanism for obtaining grants is typically used by animal rights activists and labor unions (trying to unionize technicians), but is incredibly rare for competitors to try to do this. ...While this request may be technically legal, it is certainly unethical and terribly noncollegial. I still don't know who the anonymous physician is. Imagine being forced to share your unpublished data and research plan with an anonymous colleague when you wrote the grant with the understanding it would stay confidential!

A few days later, the anonymous physician withdrew the FOIA request.

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