FOIA-The Freedom of Information Act

Mar 31 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

As a datahound, I often would like access to data. Ideally, relevant data are available through published reports, websites, or publicly available databases such as NIH RePORTER. However, in many cases, such data are not available. Fortunately, Congress passed and President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966. FOIA allows citizens to request record from any executive branch agency. The government much supply these records subject to a series of exceptions including national security,  personnel records, many pre-decisional memoranda, and several other categories.

A FOIA request must be relatively specific regarding the information requested. Importantly, FOIA applies only to records that already exist. A citizen cannot request (through FOIA) that an agency conduct an analysis that is has not already been done, but can request materials related if s/he knows that they exist.

Each agency has its own FOIA process. For example, information about the NIH FOIA process including how to file a request can be found here. I first used the FOIA process in an attempt to obtain information about the decision by the NIH Director and the Secretary of Health and Human Services to dissolve the National Center for Research Resources. In this case, the process was quite slow and frustrating. More recently, I use FOIA to obtain information about the age distribution of NIH New and Early Stage Investigators. In this case, the process was more rapid (although still took a couple of months to get the data) and I received almost all of what I requested.

My most recent FOIA request relates to the discussions of a potential emeritus award from NIH. Conversations with colleagues at the Experimental Biology meeting indicated that some NIH staff members had indicated that the responses to the NIH Request for Information (RFI) had been more positive that those to the Rock Talk post on the subject (which were almost uniformly negative). I have requested the responses to this RFI. Time will tell what I receive and what these records reveal about the respondent's thoughts are about this possible award.

Update:  The initial response is below:


17 responses so far

  • Philapodia says:

    Thanks for doing this. You are awesome!

    I don't doubt that the replies were "more positive" than what was posted on RockTalk. That's not real hard to do. RockTalk is anonymous and you can say what you think without repercussions. I tried to give my views on the RFI but wasn't as colorful with how I said because it was under my real name. Since the NIH controls my career, I restrained myself. Also, I thought the format of the RFI lent itself to more positive responses. Perhaps that was intentional.

  • Established PI says:

    This is quite a task you have taken on this time, DH, as you won't be able to use your usual number crunching approaches to sort through non-numeric responses. I am not sure what to expect but can easily imagine that the RFI responses differ somewhat from the blog comments. I used my real name on Rockey's blog and gave the same negative response to the RFI. But I can imagine there might have been some who, once they saw the tenor of the posts, refrained from publicly posting a positive response. On the other hand, Rockey's recent comment on Rock Talk that the fact that there are very senior PIs with grants is proof that they are still doing exciting science makes me think that she is filtering everything through a preconceived view of the current situation.

    Looking forward to your report.

  • Dave says:

    Something tells me your most recent request may not go as planned.

  • DJMH says:

    I had assumed it was expensive to file a FOIA--is that not true?

    • datahound says:

      It is free! You may be charged if the agency has to copy lots of materials (to cover the costs).

      • DJMH says:

        Wow, so my mental "file" = "lawyer" = "money money money MONEY" is not correct, very interesting!

        • Christina Pikas says:

          No lawyer required. The copying charges have been mentioned in news reports - like they were very high, a stalling tactic, and like sometimes they're not easily machine readable copies. For the most part, FOIA offices do the best they can to fully comply in a reasonable period of time. Many agencies then post what they've delivered via FOIA in a reading room on a web page so that others don't need to request the same thing.

  • Spiny Norman says:


    Good Datahound! Flush those pheasants!

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    You are the best, DH. Semi-related: Would it take a FOIA to find out the budget of CSR? It is buried within the tap account and I can't find any publicly retrievable way to obtain the specific budget line.

    • datahound says:

      Interesting question. Because CSR does not receive a separate appropriation, it is difficult to find the CSR budget in the usual places. Let me look into it a bit.

    • datahound says:

      I obtained some information at this point. The cost (including everything from reviewer payments through building costs) is slightly less than $2000 per application. With about 60K applications, that comes out to $120M per year.

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    I think you're the best but seeings how people have already posted that, I'm going with you're the worst. Because its a blog and someone has to be the asshole.

    Maybe I'll also be the wackaloon who tells you that this is all related to our failure to adopt a flat tax base and close proximity to the Canadians.

    I like that you laid out how to do this for noobs like me. Of course, when you have the attention span of a gnat, waiting months to get a stack o' data is tricky.

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