FOIA-ing a grant application?

By Jeremy Manier

ScienceInsider, the top-notch blog by Science magazine writers, flags this case of a scientist who discovered his research grant application had been part of a Freedom of Information Act request. A physician at another university asked for the application, on the assumption that once something is submitted to a federal agency it’s fair game for a public records request.

This reminds me of the slightly shady practice among journalists of doing a FOIA for all the other FOIAs that have been submitted to a given agency. It’s a way to keep track of what your reporting competitors are up to, but it always struck me as a bit like cheating.

In this case, as the original post explains, there’s a legitimate legal case that the unpublished data in such an NIH application should be shielded from public view. And as the poster argues, a FOIA is certainly a non-collegial way of getting information. But is it unethical? Clearly it is if the intent was to get an unfair advance peek at another scientist’s methods, objectives, etc. But public records are public. I never submitted an e-mail, FOIA or other communication to a public agency that I wouldn’t have been comfortable seeing released. Grant requests are different, but it’s probably safe to assume that unless there’s a clear exemption, anything you give a government office could become public.

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