Archive: NSF Common Guidelines

Blog: Completing a National Science Foundation Freedom of Information Act Request

Posted on July 15, 2019 by  in Blog (, , )

Principal Consultant, The Rucks Group

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Completing a Form

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 you as an evaluator may be evaluating or researching a topic and 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.

To learn more, visit

Keywords: FOIA request, freedom of information act

Newsletter: Project Spotlight: PATHTECH Successful Academic & Employment Pathways in Advanced Technologies

Posted on January 1, 2016 by  in Newsletter - () ()

Associate Professor of Sociology, University of South Florida

Will Tyson is PI for Path Tech, an ATE targeted research project. He is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Florida. Learn more about his project at

Q: What advice do you have for PIs who want to pursue targeted research in technician education?

The Targeted Research on Technician Education strand of ATE is an ideal avenue for current ATE PIs looking to fund small projects to learn more about student outcomes resulting from prior activities. The best advice I have is to seek out scholars with backgrounds in social science and education, preferably with NSF experience, to partner with on a targeted research submission.

Q: You’ve published numerous articles on your research. What is your sense of what journal editors and reviewers are looking for when it comes to research on technician education?

I’m not sure journal editors and reviewers are actually looking for research on technician education. This is both a challenge and an opportunity. Most STEM education research generally ignores the “T” and focuses on traditional pathways to science, engineering, and mathematics degrees and careers. I think people know “good tech jobs” exist, but generally lack knowledge about the educational pathways to those jobs and the rich life stories of community college students in technician education programs.

Q: How do you see ATE research fitting within the NSF-IES Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development?

I think there are some challenges to fitting ATE research into the Common Guidelines. There are several research types and ATE researchers have to be careful to make sure the type they choose is the best fit for their research questions. The Guidelines are a good start for new investigators, but senior investigators should continue to build upon their work and use prior research to justify their new research ideas.

Q: Based on your experience as an NSF proposer and reviewer, what are some common mistakes when it comes to targeted research proposals?

Everyone should pay close attention to the goals of the Targeted Research on Technician Education track as outlined in the ATE program solicitation, which are to simulate and support research on technician education and build the partnership capacity between 2- and 4-year institutions to design and conduct research and development projects. All projects should focus on studying education through partnerships between 2- and 4-year institutions. In my experience, targeted research proposals tend to be led by 2-year college faculty or scholars from 4-year institutions or private research institutes. The 2-year personnel tend to lack the capacity to conduct targeted research due to lack of experience or personnel, as evidenced by their biosketches. On the other hand, 4-year personnel tend to lack familiarity with 2-year colleges and seek to use students as “guinea pigs.” Proposals often do not show that the scholar will be able to recruit student participants. Targeted research proposals should show clear evidence that 2- and 4-year institutions or private research institutes are going to work collaboratively.