Parliamentary watchdogs have criticised the UK's academy for the humanities and social sciences over "weaknesses and inconsistencies" in its handling of a £2 million centenary research competition after an investigation by The Times Higher .
The report by the National Audit Office on the British Academy may be worded in careful Whitehall language, but it represents a rap on the knuckles for the 100-year-old body that distributes £13 million a year to researchers.
The research grant, the biggest and most prestigious in the academy's history, was intended to mark the centenary of the institution. But it led to a bitter public dispute, with claims from academics that the BA was biased against candidates outside the fellowship and revelations that senior BA officials dismissed as "cheap and sneering and ignorant" inquiries by an MP into the affair.
After an investigation, the NAO this week identifies "weaknesses" in the BA's "processes for making the award" and has called on the academy to "reassess its risk management of major awards" and to "review its approach towards declarations of interest".
While the watchdog did not consider the academic judgements made by the academy, it found there was no bias in the competition. But it identifies two flaws in its grant-giving procedures: an inconsistency in selection criteria, and the absence of checks to highlight any conflicts of interest among referees.
The findings have renewed calls for a root-and-branch review of the BA's grant processes and have revived demands for a rerun of the competition, which attracted almost 100 research teams.
"The NAO report shows that if the results of the award are allowed to stand it will give a green light for the leaders of funding agencies to hand out large sums of public money willy-nilly and ignore basic standards of fairness," the Sussex University research team that reached the final shortlist of three projects and originally raised the alarm said this week.
Joan Thirsk, elected a BA fellow in 1974, said the NAO's findings vindicated the Sussex team's and The Times Higher 's concerns. "These are serious criticisms and it is outrageous how the academy tried to brush things under the carpet. They need to be more accountable for the money they award."
The BA welcomed the "principal finding" that there was no bias, but said it would adopt changes recommended by the NAO. Its president, Lord Runciman, said: "I am fully satisfied that the research committee, the assessors and the members of staff who dealt with the applications all behaved with integrity and professionalism throughout."
The Department for Education and Skills said there was no evidence to support calls for the competition to be rerun but it would discuss the recommendations for improvements with the BA.
In a series of articles since June 2003, The Times Higher reported concerns after the BA awarded £1 million of the £2 million to a team led by one of its own fellows, and withheld the other £1 million.
The failed Sussex researchers, led by environmental historian Richard Grove, cried foul. Key among their concerns was that the BA had not applied the award criteria initially published, essentially changing the rules mid-competition.
In the call for proposals in 2002, the criteria said the ideal project would have "an international focus". When the BA announced the winner in June 2003, this had been replaced by a requirement that the project should "create a new subdiscipline".
Internal BA documents show that in September 2002 the Sussex application "fully meets the criterion of international collaboration", but by February 2003, the team was criticised for failing to create "a new subdiscipline" - a criterion it was unaware of.
Dr Grove complained to Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister, who said: "The academy has stated that the competition entries were judged against the original criteria as advertised."
This week, the NAO concludes: "A difference between how the ideal project was described to the applicants and how it was described to the assessors was a weakness in the academy's assessment process."
It says the BA "acknowledged a departure from strict consistency, but explained it as an elaboration of ideas implicit in the description of the ideal project".
Conflict of interest
The other allegation made by the Sussex team was that the academic appointed to assess its bid had a "serious conflict of interest".
Dr Grove explained in a letter to the BA that the assessor for his bid was a member of the editorial board of a journal Dr Grove had founded, and "was involved in a highly acrimonious dispute that resulted in the takeover of the journal" by a team based in the assessor's department.
The assessor denied any conflict of interest, and the BA wrote to Dr Grove:
"It is not normal practice to give candidates an opportunity to object to the external assessor." It took no action.
This week, the NAO reports: "The academy's guidance for ensuring that assessors understood the basis for declaring interests was insufficient at the time."
It recommends that "the academy review its approach towards declarations of interests".
But the BA said it did not accept the NAO's finding on this point. "The academy believes that senior and experienced scholars are accustomed to working within the academic peer-review system, which was the form adopted for the project's evaluation," it says. "It does not believe that there was a need for a declaration in this case... But it has agreed to keep the position under review in the light of changing practice elsewhere in the academic community."
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
The Times Higher reports allegations of "old boys' favouritism" in the British Academy's handling of its £2 million centenary research award.
The Times Higher reports that the published criteria for the award were different from that applied when assessing bids and that an unsuccessful research team complained of "a serious conflict of interest"
Alan Johnson ,
Higher Education Minister, agrees to examine concerns about the competition.
Mr Johnson clears the academy. He says that it has assured him that "all applications were considered and assessed in relation to the same criteria, published at the outset"
academy secretary, writes to The Times Higher . He insists the criteria were not changed after the application process. Denies conflict of interest.
Documents uncovered by The Times Higher confirm that at least one bid was judged by a criterion that was not part of those initially published. They also show Norman Baker (Lib Dem MP for Lewes), right, being attacked by Mr Brown for "cheap and sneering ignorant wit"
The National Audit Office agrees to look into the allegations.
Academy announces to fellows that the NAO has verbally confirmed "no evidence of any impropriety and that no further action is recommended", even though the NAO has not received complainants' evidence.
The NAO reports that there were "weaknesses and inconsistencies" in the handling of the award.
The competition was launched to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the British Academy - an "independent, self-governing fellowship" of about 800 scholars.
The BA symbolises the academic establishment and is based in Carlton House Terrace in London, a stone's throw from the Royal Society and the Athenaeum club. But some academics argue that it is an anachronistic self-serving club of cronies.
Last year, lecturers' union Natfhe described the BA as "an old boys' network" when a study by The Times Higher found that male academics in elite universities appeared to have a stranglehold on the grants it awarded.
The BA is funded by about £13 million of taxpayers' money a year, supplied via the Department for Education and Skills.
But The Times Higher study found that 78 per cent of the research readership and fellowship awards given since it began recording its winners on its website in 1997 went to men. Some 98.4 per cent had gone to old universities.
While women make up 40 per cent of the academic community in humanities and social sciences, they received 22 per cent of the research grants.
Some 1.6 per cent of grants went to new universities, and of the awards that went to old universities 44 per cent went to Oxbridge and London.