“The public does have a right to know what defines ‘other’ stuff,” National Freedom of Information Coalition Interim Executive Director Dan Bevarly told TheDCNF. Denying proprietary information, however, is “understandable,” he said.
“People deserve an explanation of what that constitutes,” he continued. “It adds more to the public suspicion. What is it they’re withholding? Unfortunately, they’re not forthcoming, so they allow us to connect the dots together.”
A Freedom of Information Act request could disclose some details, Arriens noted.
“Some of the budget may be releasable information, however, but our General Counsel office would have to review it through a FOIA request to determine exactly what information,” Arriens said. The FOIA requires that all government documents be available on request to any citizen, subject only to exceptions such as privacy, proprietary information and law enforcement.
But House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith – a Republican from Texas who is fighting what he calls “secret science” at the Environmental Protection Agency – told TheDCNF that:
“If there is proprietary information in a project file, then NSF can rightfully redact that information. But NSF can’t use the proprietary information shield to lock up its files and block taxpayers from knowing how their money is being spent. The science committee will closely monitor this issue to ensure taxpayer-funded science is open and transparent.”
Smith’s committee isn’t the only congressional panel taking an interest in secret science in federal agencies. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform released a Jan. 11, 2016, report that described the FOIA process as “broken” and claimed the Obama administration “encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy.”
The watchdog Citizens Against Government Waste’s Government Affairs Director Bill Christian has waited for a FOIA response from NSF for nearly two years.
“We did a FOIA request in February of 2014 and shortly thereafter we got the pretty standard response that our request would take longer than the statutory 20 days,” Christian told TheDCNF. “We’re going on almost two years of what we would have thought would have been a fairly straightforward request.”
Christian requested documents that supported NSF’s decision to fund eight projects. He was told in July 2015 – five months after his request – he could expect responses to one project per week in July 2014, but Christian has only obtained two as of Jan. 15.
It typically takes NSF a month to process a FOIA request, according to Arriens.
The need for more transparency in the agency became clear earlier this month when a former University of California, San Diego researcher pleaded guilty to fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars in grants, including some from NSF.
Homayoun Karimabadi was paid $1.9 million between 2005 and 2013 by his employer SciberQuest Inc., “due, in part, to the fraudulently obtained grants or contracts,” according to the Department of Justice. He faces up to 20 years in jail and a $250,000 fine.
More infamy may be ahead for NSF because the experiment it funded a few years ago featuring a shrimp on a treadmill is being conducted a second time.
David Scholnick, one of the researchers involved in the running shrimp experiment, told TheDCNF that neither he nor the $47 treadmill were paid for with NSF money. There were actually several related experments, not all of which involved running shrimp, and the grant money was mainly used to pay researcher’s salaries, lead investigator Lou Burnett told TheDCNF.
“The shrimp on a treadmill was just one experiment in a battery of experiments,” Karen Burnett – another lead investigator and Lou’s wife – told TheDCNF.
Lou burnett added that “we ought to be forthcoming, even though the motive of the person requesting [budget information] may be other than something you like.” He said he was surprised NSF didn’t openly share spending details.
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