Times Higher Education
A funding council team has secretly instructed panels assessing academics' work as part of the research assessment exercise to destroy all records of how they reach their conclusions, Times Higher Education has learnt.Read the full story
The move, which has been condemned by a freedom-of-information campaign group, is aimed at avoiding challenges to panel decisions by academics using freedom-of-information or data-protection laws. It will see evidence such as notes and minutes explaining the panels' decision-making process shredded before the final RAE results are published.
In a confidential letter sent to panel members last November, Ed Hughes, head of the team managing the RAE on behalf of the UK's four funding bodies including the Higher Education Funding Council for England, sets out a timetable for the destruction of records. These include personal notes taken by panel members and the panel secretariat, workbooks recording emerging decisions about each submission and draft minutes of meetings.
The letter, leaked to Times Higher Education, warns that if academics on the panels make personal notes and hold them for longer than 20 days they may need to be released to comply with legislation if a "relevant request for information" is received.
"We strongly wish to avoid dealing with such requests and the associated burden they would place on panel members and the secretariat. It is for this reason that we ask you to exercise caution in creating personal notes, destroy them at the latest 20 days after creation and do not disseminate them," it says.
The RAE is currently in its assessment phase. Fifteen main panels and 67 sub-panels of experts are judging the quality of research in departmental submissions. The results are due to be published in mid-December and will translate into research funding from 2009-10.
Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, described the approach as "extremely negative" and said that the RAE team had "lost all sense of proportion"
He added that the "overriding objective" of the instructions seemed to be to ensure that Hefce was in possession of nothing that could be requested under legislation, rather than to protect the integrity of the decision-making process.