Today DoucheMonkey and Comrade PhysioProf received the following letter from a reader:
Drug Monkey and Physioprof:
I follow your blog quite a bit. I am writing with the hopes that you can publicize something that has happened to me and others that I find ethically egregious and could happen to other NIH-funded scientists. I will give you the short story, but if you want all the sordid details, I can share them with you.
I am an assistant professor (about 3 years into starting my lab) at a research university. On Monday of this week, I received an email from a freedom of information act specialist saying that a secretary at another research university had requested a copy of my recently funded R01 and that I had 5 days to comply. I called the secretary (who was requesting for an anonymous physician) and explained to her that there was a ton of unpublished data and a research plan for the lab that I thought when writing was confidential. I then offered to send her the grant in its entirety without government involvement if she would have the physician send me an email promising to keep it confidential. I should point out that I am very good about sharing reagents and have given out my grants (funded R01, R21, R03 and foundation grants) to others with the agreement that they stay confidential. Two days after my phone call (and subsequent email), this secretary sent a very curt email saying that they "preferred to go through the freedom of information act."
At this point, I got nervous. I called the FOIA specialist and found out that I could redact portions of my grant but my PO would have to approve the redactions. I found out that this mechanism for obtaining grants is typically used by animal rights activists and labor unions (trying to unionize technicians), but is incredibly rare for competitors to try to do this. In asking, none of the senior faculty in my department or at the research institution where I did my post-doc had ever had this happen to them. I also found out from the FOIA specialist that 2 other grants from other investigators had been requested. One awarded to an investigator at another research university had come while he was out of town, and the NIH sent it out in its entirety. In his email correspondence to me, this investigator was very upset and was receiving little support from his school. He wrote that the only thing he knew to do was to spend the summer writing half-finished papers.
After receiving his email, I contacted my Dean. He has been incredibly supportive and the school has found a pitbull of a lawyer for me in their general counsel's office. We are fighting this vigorously, and beyond the Dean, higher level officials at the school are also involved.
While this request may be technically legal, it is certainly unethical and terribly noncollegial. I still don't know who the anonymous physician is. Imagine being forced to share your unpublished data and research plan with an anonymous colleague when you wrote the grant with the understanding it would stay confidential!
I would very much like you guys to highlight this situation on your blog to let others know (a) this can be done and (b) this can be fought.