The increasing use of US freedom of information requests to obtain research grants could threaten intellectual property and innovation

University researchers in the US, including many chemists, are expressing concern about the apparently growing number of freedom of information requests seeking access to research proposals.

Over the past 10 years the US National Institutes of Health has received more than 13,300 requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for grant applications that it funded, and in 2015 and 2016 nearly 30% of those filings came from people at academic institutions, according to recent BuzzFeed analysis. Through its own FOIA requests, BuzzFeed also found that between 2009 and 2016 the US National Science Foundation (NSF) received more than 1,800 requests for grant proposals the agency awarded, and about half were filed by academic scientists or university officials.

‘I do think FOIA requests are on the rise, and to be honest it seems a bit strange to me,’ says Amy Walker, a materials science and engineering professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. ‘Generally, scientists are willing to share their funded proposals with others, or discuss ideas contained in them.’

Walker served as co-principal investigator (PI) on an NSF grant that was the subject of a FOIA request by an academic at another university. The research in question aimed to improve chemical imaging techniques.

‘It took a lot of time to go back over the proposal and to ask the NSF not to disclose some components of the grant,’ Walker tells Chemistry World. She says she would have happily talked to the requestor and shared information if they had made direct contact. ‘It just seemed strange that the requestor did not, and to some extent it made us feel less collaborative,’ Walker recalls.

Redaction reaction

Bill Wuest, a chemistry professor at Emory University in Georgia who has been a PI for six years, was also caught off guard a few months ago when the NIH informed him that his research grant was the subject of an FOIA request. Wuest, who works on antibiotic development, says he was told that he had to comply with the request and could only redact information with ‘sound reason’. Of the various items that qualify for redaction, the most relevant one for research proposals is an exemption for information covered by intellectual property laws, such as trade secrets.

It turned out that Wuest’s research proposal was being sought by the owner of an academic consulting company to help them train new faculty members in grant writing. ‘I appreciated why it was being used, and that situation was good, but I would prefer – for the sake of openness – if people making those types of requests would directly correspond with me via email after seeing that I have a funded grant,’ he states.

Wuest notes that anybody can request these public records. Indeed, FOIA’s own Q&A page explains that generally any person – US citizen or not – can seek information through the public records law. ‘These are proposals which have not been worked on yet, so researchers can be scooped,’ Wuest warns. ‘Ideas can be more or less stolen from their research proposals.’

Funding agencies such as NIH make summaries of funded projects openly available, including the goals, results and other details such as the awardee and size of the grant. But full grant applications contain much more information, which some researchers feel should be treated confidentially.

‘The nitty gritty details of a grant in the research description are an expression of vision and creativity and intellectual property, potentially that should be treated as privileged,’ says William Dichtel, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University, potentially.

‘At the stage where these ideas are not fully formed, you might be inadvertently giving away those sorts of things that have both intellectual and academic value,’ Dichtel warns. ‘It would be a shame if someone’s intellectual property and ability to commercialise their ideas later would be affected by something like this.’

Weaponising FOIA

Some scientists are also concerned that FOIA could be used by policymakers to undermine fundamental research in the US. In recent years, key members of Congress have publicly questioned the value of scores of research grants funded by the federal agencies like NSF, based on their titles. ‘A lot of basic science can be rooted on very abstract ideas, and those types of proposals could be cherry-picked and singled out as being outlandish,’ Wuest states.

Dave Fernig, a biological chemistry professor at the University of Liverpool in the UK, proposes that those who request research grants through FOIA should be held to the same confidentiality rules that apply to peer reviewers. ‘When I review a grant for the NIH, for example, and when I sit on various review panels in Europe, I can find a particular grant interesting but am clearly not allowed to pursue it,’ he explains.

Fernig says this sort of confidentiality is important here ‘to prevent theft,’ and he suggests that synthetic chemistry is particularly vulnerable to being scooped. For example, he says, someone from another institution could obtain a researcher’s grant through FOIA and then put a lot of people on a project to be the first to make a particular molecule.

There is also fear that perceived intrusions like FOIA requests might create an even more competitive environment that discourages innovative science. ‘If you going to try something really new, you need the space to develop your ideas,’ Walker says.