MRC: FOI, peer review reports relating to unsuccessful proposals

From Ian McLachlan, continuing correspondence with the MRC

26 September 2008

Dear Mr McLachlan,

Freedom of Information request for peer review reports relating to unsuccessful proposals

Firstly I apologise for the time taken to respond to the request you submitted on 9th July.

In your request you asked for peer review reports relating to a number of unsuccessful proposals identified in 2005 in response to an earlier Freedom of Information request. We have considered your request carefully, and have taken account of the recent decision from the Information Commissioner’s Office on your complaint. However, the MRC considers that the information you have requested is subject to exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act, and we have therefore decided not to release the requested documents to you.

Our decision is based on the application of the following exemptions under the Act:

Section 36(2)(b) and (c): Effective Conduct of Public Affairs.

The MRC’s peer review process relies on the provision of highly detailed and sensitive information by both the applicants for grants and those who review them. The MRC considers that the release of reviewers’ reports, provided in confidence, would result in a change in the behaviour of those participating in the process (both applicants and reviewers), in terms of the information provided for review, the availability of reviewers and the detail and quality of the reviews provided. Such a change in behaviour would inhibit the free and frank expression of views and provision of advice and would significantly impair the quality of the MRC’s peer review mechanism.

This view is based on the experience of senior staff and the views of individual applicants and reviewers and is held by a qualified person as required by s36 of the FOIA.

Section 41: Information Provided in Confidence.

Applications for MRC funding are submitted in confidence. This allows applicants to provide detailed information relating to their proposed study for the purposes of peer review. Peer review reports are also provided in confidence; this is in part to maintain the confidentiality of any information contained in the research proposal that reviewers include in their comments, but also to permit the free and frank delivery of views by reviewers.

Information provided in applications to the MRC which the applicants and the MRC would not wish to release includes sensitive information relating to preliminary hypotheses and research findings and data, information intended for future publication, commercially sensitive information, and personal data. The expectation and duty of confidence is clearly outlined at the time of application and on referral to peer reviewers who assess the proposal. The ICO recently acknowledged and accepted the requirement for such a duty of confidence to both applicants and reviewers. The release of the reports you have requested would constitute a breach of this confidence and could result in the MRC facing actions for breach of confidence.

Even if, in any individual case, both the applicant and relevant reviewer were to agree to the release of a peer review report which was originally provided in confidence, MRC’s view is that the release of that report would have a detrimental impact on the peer review process as described above and would therefore be exempt from disclosure under s36.

Although we believe that all of the information you are requesting is covered by one or both of the above exemptions, as you know, we must also consider whether in all the circumstances of the case, the public interest would be better served by disclosing, rather than withholding, the information. In considering this, we have taken account of the views not only of senior MRC staff, but also of applicants and reviewers, and have considered the wider implications for the peer review process currently operated by the MRC. The MRC’s mission is to improve human health through world-class medical research and we support an extremely wide range of research across the entire spectrum of medical research, from fundamental laboratory-based science to clinical trials, and in all major disease areas. Effective peer review is the cornerstone of our mission in providing the mechanism to ensure that public funding is used most effectively to support the best science.

The MRC believes that release of reviewers’ reports would have a detrimental impact on the process of peer review across all areas supported by MRC making it more difficult for the MRC to discriminate between proposals that merit funding and those that do not. For this reason the MRC considers that the public interest is better served in withholding the information that you have requested than it is by disclosing it at the present time.

If you are not satisfied that your request has been dealt with appropriately you may appeal using the MRC’s complaints procedure (www.mrc.ac.uk/index/about/about-contact/about complaints_procedure.htm).

Alternatively you may contact the MRC Complaints Officer by email at customer.service@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk or write to The Complaints Officer, Medical Research Council, 20 Park Crescent, London W1B 1AL. If, following the Complaints Officer’s reply, you remain dissatisfied; you may contact the Information Commissioner. Details of how to take your complaint further are at www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk .

Yours sincerely

for MRC

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