Attempts to overturn environmental sciences' dire performance in the research assessment exercise have been dropped after the Higher Education Funding Council for England admitted shredding all papers with personal information, writes Steve Farrar.
The destruction of documentation has led the scientists to drop a proposed legal challenge and start campaigning for a national investment plan to preserve the discipline within universities.
Environmental sciences fared worse than any other unit of assessment in the 2001 exercise - 18 of the 34 entries were ranked at 2 or 3b, and just four departments gained a 5 or 5*.
Faced with the prospect of a wholesale loss of funding, there had been plans to mount a judicial review to have the results reappraised.
But an emergency meeting of the Committee of Heads of Environmental Science (Ches) was told by Bahram Bekhradnia, Hefce's director of policy, that the results had to be presumed correct. He said they could not be checked because anything containing personal information had been shredded as required by the Data Protection Act.
Nevertheless, Mr Bekhradnia agreed to internal case-by-case reviews of procedures that Ches said were inadequate and had led to environmental sciences being unfairly assessed as the weakest research discipline.
Members of Ches are now resigned to a number of departments closing or being downgraded as the meagre resources still available are shifted elsewhere within their parent institutions.
To try to mitigate the damage, Ches is asking Hefce for an investment plan for the discipline.
Donald Davidson, chair of Ches and professor of environmental science at Stirling University, has appealed for help from vice-chancellors of universities with an interest in the subject, form heads of government agencies, non-governmental organisations and from professional bodies.
MP calls for research funding review
There should be an independent review of funding for research in higher education, a Labour MP said last week.
Ian Gibson is Labour MP for Norwich North and chairman of the Commons select committee on science and technology, which held an inquiry into the RAE earlier this year.
He told a debate in Westminster Hall last week: "There are plans to carry out a new review of the RAE. The research directorate is wedded to the RAE concept and cannot see its limitations or when it has had its day."
He suggested that the review be halted until an independent body is set up to review in depth funding for research in higher education and to come up with a comprehensive plan for future funding of all the diverse areas of research.
Gordon Marsden, Labour MP for Blackpool South and, until last year, a member of the select committee on education and employment, said: "Hefce has been complacent and arrogantI There is ample evidence that the RAE, as it functions now, inhibits collaboration."
Tony McWalter, Labour MP for Hemel Hempstead and a member of the select committee on science and technology, said: "The response of the minister who gave evidence to the committee (Margaret Hodge), bodies such as Hefce and the chairman of research councils, John Taylor, is best described as the committee hearing the sounds of violins playing as those authorities fiddled while the temple of science and technology was ablaze."
In response, higher education minister Margaret Hodge said: "The RAE is a good thing. It may need review and reform, but it provides flexibility and plurality and allows us to fund the unfashionable and unconventional. We should build on that."