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?