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Q: Freedom of Information Act and NSF project data ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Freedom of Information Act and NSF project data
Category: Reference, Education and News
Asked by: rogerhyam-ga
List Price: $30.00
Posted: 09 Mar 2004 06:38 PST
Expires: 08 Apr 2004 07:38 PDT
Question ID: 314853
I am interested in getting hold of data that was generated as part of
a National Science Foundation funded project. DBI-9808220 "The
International Plant Names Index: An Internet-Accessible Authority File 
of Scientific Names of Seed Plants Using Distributed Object 
Technologies". I believe that the NSF operates under the Freedom of
Information Act and that all reports from projects should also be
available under this act. What I want to know is whether the data that
was generated by the project is also be available under that act.

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 09 Mar 2004 06:57 PST
Hello Roger,

The International Plant Names Index is already freely available to
anyone who wants to use it, through an internet-based interface.

It is also a very massive database, so that storing it and
manipulating it on your own would be a sizable undertaking -- one that
very well may be beyond the capabilities of a desktop PC system.

Please clarify what you're after so I can best research your question.  Do you:

1) Want to access the IPNI? -- if so, I can direct you to the database.

2) Want to download a sizable chunk of the database (or the whole
thing, for that matter)?  The researchers involved have clearly stated
their intention that the dataset should be freely available to all who
want it.  You can easily download up to 5,000 records from the online
dataset.  To get a copy of larger chunks of data -- or even of the
entire very massive dataset -- your best bet would be to contact IPNI
directly.  I can provide contact details if you'd like.

3) Or do you specifically want to understand whether NSF is subject to
a Freedom of Information Act request.  If so, I'd be glad to research
the protocol for making a FOIA request to NSF.

Let me know what information would best meet your needs.



Clarification of Question by rogerhyam-ga on 09 Mar 2004 07:57 PST
Yes I know the IPNI data is available over the internet. Yes I know
you can down load 5000 records at a time but would like to do research
on the entire dataset. I am in discussions with IPNI who don't
currently release the whole dataset. I would like to know whether they
are obliged to release the whole dataset under Freedom of Information
Act and indeed if this applies to all NSF funded research projects. I
already know that reports submitted to NSF are available under FOIA
but I don't know about data.

There are approximately two million records in the dataset but each
record is quite small, consisting of a dozen words average. I am a
software developer and so am aware of the implications of data size

Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 09 Mar 2004 08:14 PST
As a rule of thumb, the NSF -- like all federal entities -- is obliged
to release information upon request, unless they decide they don't
want to!

I'm not being facetious.  The Freedom of Information Act creates a
presumption of releasability, but also allows allows for significant
exemptions at the agency's discretion.

I looked at the NSF FOIA regulations, and by my reading, the rules
certainly would allow NSF to turn down your request for the database
if they were so inclined.

However, the overall "feel" of their FOIA office is that they would
try to accomodate pretty much any reasonable request for information. 
They may be able to help you secure the entire database, but there is
certainly no guarantee of the outcome.

Would you like me to post the steps for making a FOIA request to NSF
as an answer to your question?

Clarification of Question by rogerhyam-ga on 10 Mar 2004 00:51 PST
Thanks for that pafalafa. That goes a long way to answering my question.

If you could post some links to the relevant resources that support
what you say and the proceedure for applying for release of data under
FoIA that would be a fine answer. (Also the appeal proceedure if they
don't release it would be interesting if you come across it.)

Thanks for you time on this.
Subject: Re: Freedom of Information Act and NSF project data
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 10 Mar 2004 06:53 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello again, Roger.

Thanks for giving me the go-ahead on this.

I have some experience with FOIA, and based on that, I can tell you
that one possible outcome of your request could be:  "Sorry...we don't
have the information you're seeking in our possession".

NSF is only obligated by FOIA to make available information in its
file-drawers, so to speak.  They are not obligate to create
information or go out and retrieve available data from a grantee.  At
least, this is how I understand the operation of the law.

That said, however, the NSF does seem to have a genuinely proactive
stance to making information available, and I suspect they will at
least make a good faith effort on your behalf.

I've posted relevant links and excerpts (and a few of my own comments,
in brackets) below.  If anything here is not clear -- or if you need
additional information -- please let me know before rating this

Just post a Request for Clarification to let me know what you need,
and I'll be happy to assist you further.

Best of luck.



NSF's FOIA website is here:

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act

National Science Foundation policy is to make the fullest possible
disclosure of information, subject to restrictions imposed by the
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act, to any person who
requests information, without unnecessary expense or delay.
Information is provided here on how to make FOIA and Privacy Act
requests for NSF records and how to contact the FOIA and Privacy Act
offices at NSF.

[here are the steps for making a FOIA request]

Making a FOIA Request

If you wish to make a FOIA request for records, NSF regulations
(published at 45 CFR, Part 612) describe the agency policies in
detail. At a minimum, requests should:

--be in writing, (regular mail, electronic mail, and facsimile
requests are accepted);
--be clearly identified as a FOIA request, this should be indicated in
the text, and on the envelope if the request is sent by regular mail);
--clearly describe the records sought, the more information provided -
name(s), date(s), specific subject area(s) - the easier it will be to
determine if the records you are seeking exist; more specific and
limited requests generally result in quicker responses and lower (or
no) fees); and
--state willingness to pay applicable fees (fees for search, review
and duplication may be applicable, depending upon the identity of the

Include the mailing address to which records should be sent. If you
include your telephone number, we can contact you if there is any
question about the scope of your request, possible fees, etc.. You
will not be charged if applicable fees are less than $25, but you may
wish to include a maximum dollar amount you are willing to pay.

[And here's the "file drawer" caveat I mentioned above]

Please remember that the FOIA applies only to existing agency records.
It does not require agencies to create records, or to answer
questions. However, NSF will attempt, in all cases, to provide the
information desired.

National Science Foundation
FOIA Officer (Rm 1265)
4201 Wilson Blvd
Arlington, VA 22230
phone  (703) 292-8060
fax:   (703) 292-9041

The actual rules for NSF FOIA requests can be seen here:

Title 45--Public Welfare 

[Here is an important statement of NSF policy -- can't hurt to quote
this in your request]

As a matter of policy, the Foundation also makes discretionary
disclosures of records or information otherwise exempt under the FOIA
whenever disclosure would not foreseeably harm an interest protected
by a FOIA exemption.


This link explains FOIA exemptions:

[In particular, this language provides some protection to a grantee. 
However, in your case, since the grantee has already stated their
intention to make the information broadly available, I think they
would be hard pressed to sustain a claim that their competitive
interests are threatened]

(4) Exemption 4--5 U.S.C. 552(b)(4). Trade secrets and commercial or 
financial information obtained from a person, and privileged or 
confidential. Information subject to this exemption is that customarily 
held in confidence by the originator(s), including nonprofit 
organizations and their employees. Release of such information is likely 
to cause substantial harm to the competitive position of the originator 
or submitter, or impair the Foundation's ability to obtain such 
information in the future.


[Here are the rules regarding appeals]

Sec. 612.9  Appeals
a) Appeals of denials. You may appeal a denial of your request to 
the General Counsel, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, 
Suite 1265, Arlington, VA 22230. You must make your appeal in writing 
and it must be received by the Office of the General Counsel within ten 
days of the receipt of the denial (weekends, legal holidays, and the 
date of receipt excluded). Clearly mark your appeal letter and the 
envelope ``Freedom of Information Act Appeal.'' Your appeal letter must 
include a copy of your written request and the denial together with any 
written argument you wish to submit.

[Note this language -- if you want to take a denial to court you MUST
first go through the appeals process]

(c) When appeal is required. If you wish to seek review by a court 
of any denial, you must first appeal it under this section.


That's FOIA in a nutshell.  Again, best of luck, and let me know if
you need any additional information.


search strategy:  Visited the NSF website and searched on Freedom of Information.
rogerhyam-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Good researching. Seems to have some knowledge of the subject and went
out of their way to be helpful.

Subject: Re: Freedom of Information Act and NSF project data
From: pafalafa-ga on 10 Mar 2004 07:21 PST
Thanks Roger.  Let us know how things turn can always post a
follow-comment here.


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