'Excessive' RAE secrecy criticised

Academic barred from seeing his own school's submission urges transparency. Zoe Corbyn writes

October 23, 2008

A leading academic has criticised the "excessive" secrecy surrounding the 2008 research assessment exercise, after his own department refused to let him see the work it put forward for judgment.

Leslie Woodcock, a professor in the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Manchester, was told that his school's RAE submission was "private and confidential", even through it included his own research papers.

The RAE will be used by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to allocate £1.4 billion a year of research funding.

"It is outrageous that we can't see our submissions ... Applications by public institutions for public funding, on the basis of published achievements from previous public grants, should, I believe, all be public knowledge," he said.

Professor Woodcock this week called on departments to let their own academic staff have access to submissions. He also called for all submissions to be published online to invite academic scrutiny before - rather than after - the assessment panels had deliberated and funding levels had been decided.

"There is no reason why the committees (deciding) should not have access to the views of the scientific community," he said.

The RAE results are due to be published on 18 December, although funding decisions will not be made until March.

A spokesman for Hefce said it was for each institution to decide who to show its RAE submission to. Hefce will publish RAE submissions "with confidential material removed" online in spring 2009. The material it publishes will include the names of selected staff and listings of research output, unless they have been marked as confidential by the institution for reasons of personal or commercial security or future institutional strategy.

Aggregate data on supervised research students, supervised research assistants and research income will also be published.

Times Higher Education reported in April that RAE panel members had been advised to destroy notes on how they reach their decisions to avoid requests under freedom of information and data protection laws. A spokesperson for Hefce confirmed this week that this advice had not changed.

• Universities Secretary John Denham has rejected a demand that 10 per cent of funding from the RAE should be reserved for research of "national" significance. Currently, 76 per cent of all RAE money goes to 19 universities, largely for research deemed to be of international significance. Responding to a call for a more "fair" distribution of funds from the Million+ group, representing post-1992 universities, Mr Denham said the current system worked well.

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