BA accused of 'old boy' bias over £1m grant

June 13, 2003

The British Academy has been accused of "old boys' favouritism" after awarding a prestigious £1 million research grant to one of its fellows and withholding a further £1 million that had originally been available.

The BA has privately confirmed that Clive Gamble of Southampton University has won the funding under the academy's centenary research project and it is expected to make an announcement soon.

But a research team led by a woman from Sussex University, which made the shortlist of three from among almost 100 applicants, has cried foul. Other academics have called for a major review of the BA's decision-making mechanisms.

In a letter to the BA's council and president last week, Vinita Damodaran and Richard Grove of the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex's School of African and Asian Studies say: "We are astonished and very disturbed that the award you intend to make is to an individual who is himself a fellow of the British Academy. Moreover, we do not think that such a decision would be understood by the academic community."

Although they did not in any way question Professor Gamble's academic merits or suggest that his work was unworthy of the award, they said he had "inherent institutional advantages", and claimed that refereeing and interviews would be carried out by other fellows of the academy who were his close colleagues.

The pair also said that originally the BA had made £2 million available for up to two projects, and although it shortlisted five proposals and interviewed three research teams, it eventually agreed to fund only one.

Dr Grove told The THES : "They had almost 100 of the most exciting research proposals in British social science at the moment competing for one of the biggest-ever prizes. So how come they could only come up with one project worthy of funding, from one of their own members? This looks like old boys' favouritism. They are keeping it in-house. I am going to raise this with the parliamentary National Audit Office and the education secretary. There should be a thorough review."

Joan Thirsk, who before retirement was one of a minority of female BA fellows, said: "I was really indignant when I heard that Dr Grove had not been given an award, especially when there were originally going to be two awards. He is a young and highly original scholar." Dr Thirsk, who was elected in 1974, said the BA had serious institutional problems, which should be reviewed. "I spent 18 years at the academy and I never heard any woman suggested for election, and I was never invited on to any committee. In the end I gave up hope."

Gill Evans, policy chief of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, who held a BA research readership in the 1980s, said: "The British Academy badly needs a shake-up. It is run entirely as a club, without procedural safeguards or any protection against preference for its own in-crowd. This is not acceptable when it is offering prestigious awards and prizes and when it is disbursing public money. As someone who held one of its research readerships, I say that with no sour grapes."

The centenary research award was launched last year to mark the academy's 100th anniversary. The academy said in its call for proposals: "The BA is looking to identify up to two major new and innovative strands of long-term research in the humanities and the social sciences, which will make a significant impact on the development of scholarship in the first part of the 21st century." It said that £150,000 would be available annually for up to seven years to each of the projects.

Professor Gamble, who has been a fellow of the BA since 2000 and recently held a research readership with the academy, declined to comment but referred The THES to Southampton University's press office.

A university spokeswoman said: "Professor Gamble is one of the world's most distinguished palaeolithic archaeologists. The allegations made about the award of the BA centenary research project are entirely rejected."

She said that Professor Gamble was to be one of three named recipients of the award, as the application was made jointly with two colleagues from the University of Liverpool. "Professor Gamble and his colleagues competed for the award on exactly the same basis as others who submitted applications.

Neither Professor Gamble nor his colleagues had any access to privileged information either before the applications process or during it; neither he nor his colleagues were involved in discussions of any kind either before or during the applications process or undertook any other activities that in any way could be regarded as prejudicial to the outcome of the award."

She added that Professor Gamble had no doubt that an investigation into the award would find that "he and his colleagues acted with complete propriety throughout, and received the award solely on the quality of their research proposal".

P. W. H. Brown, secretary of the British Academy, said the academy did not comment on individual applications, but he emphasised that the applications were subject to "extremely rigorous peer review involving external evaluation by internationally renowned evaluators".

"All literature about the scheme made clear that there could be 'up to two' successful projects, and there was no guarantee that two would be successful. The academy reserved the right to determine that no submitted projects met the very high standards set for the competition," he said.

"The onus was on proposers to convince the academy that their project was suited to the academy's funding and to show in what way it could not as easily be funded through other funding agencies. The conclusion was that one project met the criteria and should be supported under this scheme. A full press release about the successful project will be issued shortly."

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