UPDATE: Two Pals, an NSF Grant

More evidence that a Program Director with ties to an NSF grantee was involved in the grant submission process

Back in January, I wrote about the appearance of a conflict of interest (COI) involving a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the Center for Science and Society (CSS) via the PI on the grant, Katherine Skinner, Research Lead at CSS’ Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI).

In September 2023, IOI received a grant for $299,454 from the NSF Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure (OAC) via its EArly-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant mechanism. EAGER grants can’t be larger than $300,000, by definition.

As I wrote at the time, the Program Director at the NSF responsible for approving the grant, Martin Halbert, shares a long history with Skinner, including:

  • Halbert thanking Skinner in his 2006 PhD thesis
  • The two working together on Emory University’s MetaScholar and MetaArchive initiatives
  • Halbert serving as President of the Board of Educopia from 2006-2020, and Skinner serving as Executive Director of Educopia from 2006-2022
  • The two writing books, monographs, and articles, and giving many talks together
  • Halbert being quoted in the IOI press release about the grant, an unusual choice for an NSF employee

Digging a bit further, readers were able to locate and capture the initial listing of the grant on the NSF site, which showed Halbert as the Program Manager, suggesting he handled the grant personally, a conflict of interest for the person assessing the award:

  • Plato Smith would later be listed as the Program Manager, his typical role.

To see if Halbert’s role in the grant application and approval process was even more involved and conflicted, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the NSF in January, shortly after the first post went up.

I received a preliminary production Friday, which included a copy of an email directly and only from Halbert to Skinner confirming that the grant proposal “may be submitted for consideration by my program.”

Note the use of the word “my,” which suggests facilitation and control, making it sound almost like a done deal.

One week later, the grant proposal was formally submitted.

Another item produced via FOIA shows Halbert remained directly involved, as the only individual communicating with Skinner, as shown in the eJacket from June 23, 2023:

In case you find that hard to read, here is the important part:

It’s worth noting that to date, there are no documented communications with Skinner that did not originate with Halbert or include him solely. That itself may be telling.

The individual (Halbert) in a position to award a grant appears to have been assisting a friend, failing to recuse himself, taking ownership (“my program”), and remaining personally involved in encouraging, approving, and facilitating the NSF grant on behalf of someone he knew well, worked with previously, and wanted to help.

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