The British Academy was this week accused of misleading higher education minister Alan Johnson as The THES revealed new material on the society's handling of its £2 million centenary research competition.
Documents obtained under the Data Protection Act indicate that the academy judged at least one application using a set of eligibility criteria that differed from the set published in its initial call for proposals. Critics claim the change renders the competition invalid.
The material calls into question the BA's assurances to officials at the Department for Education and Skills that "all applications were considered and assessed in relation to the same criteria, published at the outset".
The documents also reveal private personal attacks by the academy on a key figure who was concerned about the competition.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, who raised the alarm on behalf of constituents at Sussex University, was mocked for his "cheap and sneering and ignorant 'wit'".
Mr Baker said: "The minister needs to have an independent assessment of what's going on here. He cannot brush this matter aside any longer."
Mr Baker added that the "patronising insults" revealed the contempt the BA, which receives £13 million of public money a year, has for anyone raising legitimate concerns.
The THES reported in June and August this year that the academy was criticised when it awarded £1 million of its £2 million award to one of its own fellows. It decided to withhold the other £1 million.
A Sussex team that reached the shortlist of three projects, led by environmental historian Richard Grove and his colleague, Vinita Damodoran, cried foul, claiming the academy had published two versions of the criteria.
In its call for proposals in early 2002, the BA listed six criteria. The third criterion states: "They will have an international focus, of some specific kind."
But when the BA announced the winner, in a statement this June, the third criterion had been replaced with a requirement that the project should "create a new sub-discipline".
Dr Grove complained to Mr Johnson that the competition could not be fair if the rules had changed. Mr Johnson replied in September: "My officials have made inquiries and the academy has stated that the competition entries were judged against the original criteria as advertised."
Minutes detailing discussion about Dr Grove's project from the BA's research committee meeting in September 2002 state: "The application... fully meets the criterion of international collaboration."
By February this year, it appears that the academy was applying the requirement that a new sub-discipline be created.
Minutes detailing discussion of Dr Grove's project from a research committee meeting, on February 26 2003, state: "Those involved with this proposal were clearly very good and clever scholars. Environmental history was not, however, a new sub-discipline."
The documents obtained by Dr Grove, who is planning a judicial review application, reveal discussion inside the BA about how to explain the two versions of the criteria. These took place after Dr Grove and The THES first raised questions in July this year.
In a letter to academy secretary Peter Brown, in early August, assistant secretary Ken Emond writes: "It is true that the original call for proposals did not explicitly state that the creation of a new sub-discipline was an 'ideal' requirement of a successful project."
He suggested that the academy "could argue" (although it never did) that the sub-discipline requirement was "implicit" in the original set of criteria, and that "we weren't changing the criteria". But he added: "The trouble with any of this, I recognise, is that the more information you concede, the more questions are raised in their minds to which they want answers. Maybe it would be better to say we have provided all the information we can in response to their questions... and the matter is closed."
In a letter to Dr Brown a week later, Dr Emond concedes: "How and why I came to use the words 'creating a new sub-discipline' [in the press release], I don't recall."
But despite this internal uncertainty, the BA reassured the minister that all was well.
The documents also reveal a personal attack on Mr Baker. A letter in August, in which one senior official, clear from the context to be Dr Brown, updates another on the situation, says: "What annoyed me about all this was the cheap and sneering and ignorant 'wit' of the MP... and the fact that this episode coincides with the arrival of a new civil servant responsible for us whose first impression can only be unfavourable."
The BA declined to comment on the personal remarks made. But Dr Brown categorically denied that the criteria were changed mid-competition.
He said: "The charge is based on a footnote in a press release about the successful project, issued some three months after the grant decision had been taken. It is irrelevant to the selection process.
"You quote internal email exchanges setting out reasoned options in response to correspondence with Dr Grove. They are what any responsible and responsive organisation could be expected to review as a matter of course.
The British Academy's conviction that the selectors' original decision was soundly based remains unshaken."
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