Completing a National Science Foundation Freedom of Information Act Request
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July 31, 2019
You probably have heard of a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, but it was probably in the context of journalism. Often, journalists will submit a FOIA request to obtain information that is not otherwise publicly available, but is key to an investigative reporting project.
There may be times when your work could be enhanced with information that requires submitting a FOIA request. For instance, while working as EvaluATE’s external evaluator, The Rucks Group needed to complete a FOIA request to learn how evaluation plans in ATE proposals have changed over time. And we were interested in documenting how EvaluATE may have influenced those changes. Toward that goal, a random sample of ATE proposals funded between 2004 and 2017 was sought to be reviewed. However, in spite of much effort over an 18-month period, we still were in need of actually obtaining nearly three dozen proposals. We needed to get these proposals via a FOIA request primarily because the projects were older and we were unable to reach either the principal investigators or the appropriate person at the institution. So we submitted a FOIA request to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the outstanding proposals.
For me, this was a new and, at first, a mentally daunting task. Now, after having gone through the process, I realize that I need not be nervous because completing a FOIA request is actually quite simple. These are the elements that one needs to provide:
1. Nature of request: We provided a detailed description of the proposals we needed and what we needed from each proposal. We also provided the rationale for the request, but I do not believe a rationale is required.
2. Delivery method: Identify the method through which you prefer to receive the materials. We chose to receive digital copies via a secure digital system.
3. Budget: Completing the task could require special fees, so you will need to indicate how much you are willing to pay for the request. Receiving paper copies through the US Postal Service can be more costly than receiving digital copies.
It may take a while for the FOIA request to be filled. We submitted the request in fall 2018 and received the materials in spring 2019. The delay may have been due in part to the 35-day government shutdown and a possibly lengthy process for Principal Investigator approval.
The NSF FOIA office was great to work with, and we appreciated staffers’ communications with us to keep us updated.
Because access is granted only for a particular time, pay attention to when you are notified via email that the materials have been released to you. In other words, do not let this notice sit in your inbox.
One caveat: When you submit the FOIA request, there may be encouragement to acquire the materials through other means. Submitting a FOIA request to colleges or state agencies may be an option for you.
While FOIA requests should be made judiciously, they are useful tools that, under the right circumstances, could enhance your evaluation efforts. They take time, but thanks to the law backing the public’s right to know, your FOIA requests will be honored.