In light of allegationsof unfairness made against the British Academy, Phil Baty looks at a Sussex research team's complaint
Richard Grove was delighted when his research plans beat competition from almost 100 other projects to reach a shortlist of three for a slice of the biggest and most prestigious research award in the history of the British Academy.
But when he arrived for his interview for the BA's £2 million centenary research award in February this year, he was taken aback. Sitting there ready to grill him on his plans to piece together an environmental history of the British Empire was a former colleague Christopher Smout, a professor of environmental history at St Andrews University, a BA fellow selected to act as an "external" assessor for Dr Grove's project.
After the interview, Dr Grove and his research partner Vinita Damodaran dashed off a letter to Bob Bennett, the chairman of the centenary award selection committee, saying: "We were concerned to find that Christopher Smout had been invited to the committee as an outside referee. While we have the greatest respect for Professor Smout's scholarship... his involvement in refereeing our proposals would constitute a serious conflict of interest that threatens the fairness of the selection process."
They explained that Professor Smout of the Institute of Environmental History at St Andrews had been a member of the editorial board of Environment and History, the first international journal in the emerging field, founded and edited by Dr Grove.
"As such, Professor Smout was involved in a highly acrimonious dispute that resulted in the takeover of the journal, against the wishes of Dr Grove, by a consortium based in Professor Smout's institute," they write.
The Sussex team also argued that the St Andrews institute was in direct competition with their Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex.
Professor Smout, who left the journal's editorial board shortly after the disputed takeover, denied any conflict. In a handwritten note to Dr Grove at the end of March, he says: "As for a feud, it does not exist as far as I'm concerned, and never has. There can be no possibility of rivalry between what we do and what you do since it is different and we are not in competition for funds in any way."
Dr Grove persisted with his complaint of a conflict of interest, and, in a letter on June 9, BA assistant secretary Ken Emond said: "It should be noted that in those schemes in which the academy regularly makes use of external evaluation, it is not normal practice to give candidates an opportunity to object to the external assessor."
Dr Emond insisted that the selection process was fair. "The process was robust, and your objections were not thought to merit alteration of the substantive decision. The decision was reached in relation to the published criteria for the centenary research projects."
But Dr Grove discovered that the "published criteria" on which he was judged had changed since his application. In its call for proposals for the award, the BA listed six criteria that would "characterise the academy's view of the ideal projects it is looking to support". The third requirement was that the work should "have an international focus of some kind".
When the BA announced in June that it would award £1 million to a proposal from BA fellow Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool and BA fellow Clive Gamble of Southampton University - confirming a further £1 million that had been available would not be awarded - the criteria had changed. Number three was not a requirement for an "international focus" but a requirement that the project should "create a new subdiscipline".
Dr Grove and Dr Damodaran said in a letter sent to higher education minister Alan Johnson last week: "The alteration entirely transforms and undermines the original nature and scope of the BA centenary research grant competition... our project was built around criterion three... at no stage was the University of Sussex told that a new criterion was operational or was required."
Dr Grove said it was arguable that the winning project, From Lucy to Language: the Archaeology of the Social Brain, did not create a new subdiscipline as required.
According to the BA, the winning project mixes archaeology, evolutionary psychology and social anthropology in an attempt to "reconstruct our ancestors' social lives and behaviour from the archaeological evidence of bones and tools". Dr Grove has pointed out that this looked similar to the Arts and Humanities Research Board Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour, in which Professor Dunbar and Professor Gamble are involved.
This centre, at University College London, mixes archaeology with evolutionary biology to "advance our understanding of the evolution of human cultural behaviour, especially those practices that are connected with... the manufacture and use of artefacts". Professor Dunbar is on the centre's management committee, and Professor Gamble is an associate.
The BA's criteria for the cententary award states the project should not "duplicate schemes already offered by the AHRB". Professor Dunbar this week declined to discuss the similarity of the two projects, saying only: "We welcome all and any publicity for the project." Professor Gamble was abroad this week, but has insisted the process was fair.
Dr Grove also claimed that the BA had been trying to silence him with unspecified offers of future funding. In a letter to Dr Grove, the BA says:
"The committee agreed that it would welcome an exploration of the possibilities of offering support in other ways."
The BA also reiterated the offer in a letter to Sussex vice-chancellor Alastair Smith, who advised Dr Grove to take up the offer. "The offer is still open, but I think you now have to make the decision of whether to pursue that option or to pursue the academy for improper behaviour in the competition. My strong advice is that you do the former."
Dr Grove said: "All this may be a diversionary and rather murky carrot to stop further pressure from us and The THES ."
Professor Smith said it was "wholly incorrect" to see either the BA offer or his email as an inducement to silence.
According to Gill Evans, policy chief of the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, who held a BA readership in the 1980s, the BA offer compromises future competition for funding. She said: "You do not make good a serious procedural flaw in a competition by dipping a hand into another pot of public funding that was earmarked for a different purpose."
Dr Grove is demanding that the competition be restaged. In his letter to Mr Johnson last week, he said: "We must insist that the Department for Education and Skills requires and enforces the appointment of a new BA centenary research grant competition committee and reinterviews or reassesses the shortlisted candidates for the competition, possibly with the benefit of new and independent assessors."
He has not received a reply, but his MP, Norman Baker, has been promised a DFES report shortly.