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Confidentiality and disclosure - a guide for applicants, reviewers and commissioning committees

 

Contents

Confidentiality of applications

Applications submitted to the NIHR Central Commissioning Facility (CCF) for NIHR research programmes are considered confidential; that is, they contain information that is considered critical to an organisation's ongoing operations and could seriously impede them if made public or shared internally. They may also contain material considered personal by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) EU 2016/679 and will therefore be handled in accordance with this Regulation at all times. Our statement regarding privacy and data protection is available on the NIHR website.

Information contained within applications must necessarily be divulged to third parties in order to make funding decisions. Disclosure of information within applications is tightly controlled as follows:

The CCF takes all reasonable steps to ensure that the contents of applications are treated as confidential. Application forms and any associated papers are sent to and
received by peer and public reviewers (hereafter reviewers) and commissioning committee members, including public members and observers (hereafter committee members) in confidence. Electronic information may be transferred through the secure CCF Research Management System, CCF secure transfer system, the NIHR Hub, or on encrypted, password-protected removable storage devices by secure carrier. On limited occasions where none of the preceding methods can be used, electronic information is transferred by email. Paper information is sent by secure carrier. 

CCF staff do not disclose or discuss the content of any application submitted with any individuals outside the CCF, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and partner organisations of the NIHR, except peer and public reviewers, reviewers working in the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS), committee members and observers. Where it occurs, RDS review is not part of the selection process, but is used to monitor uptake of advice given to applicants.

By acting as a reviewer or committee member, individuals are agreeing to treat as confidential all applications sent to them by CCF. They must not disclose the fact that the applicant has applied for a research award nor the content of the application to any other person (including work colleagues) without the prior written consent of the applicant, obtained via CCF. Equally, they must not use the information in the application for any purpose other than providing a review of it to CCF or the committee. In addition, any personal information contained within the application must be treated according to the GDPR and therefore must not be disclosed to any third party. For further information, the Information Commissioner's office (ICO) has produced the following comprehensive code of conduct for data sharing: ICO code of conduct for data sharing

Applications will not be reviewed by individuals where there is a known conflict of interest. Detailed guidance on what constitutes a conflict of interest and how it is
handled can be found in the appendix.

For the following NIHR programmes, Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB), Programme Grants for Applied Research (PGfAR) and Invention for Innovation (i4i), summary meeting minutes are published after consideration of applications at committee meetings and communication of decisions to applicants. The summary minutes contain the following details relating to application forms: application number (all applications); title (full applications).

Data security

The CCF stores all electronic information in secure premises and any confidential electronic information removed from secure premises by CCF staff is encrypted and password protected. Reviewers and committee members are expected to maintain this level of electronic data security. If cloud-based storage is required, the NIHR Hub is considered secure. Other cloud-based services such as Dropbox cannot be assumed secure and should not be used for storage of application forms and meeting papers unless there is a contractual guarantee of security from the provider.  

All individuals who are sent copies of applications and any associated documents, whether electronic or paper copies, must ensure that these are not retained indefinitely. In general, paper copies collated as committee papers should be left behind for shredding at the end of the meeting. Electronic records may be retained until contract negotiations for successful applications are completed, after which point they must be deleted.

Confidentiality of peer and public reviews

Peer and public reviews (hereafter reviews) are considered confidential. Anonymised reviews and scores are shared with committee members (if no conflict of interest). The anonymised reviews are also disclosed to the authors of the application. Review scores will be disclosed to the authors of the application, ifrequested. Any sections of review forms which are not disclosed to the authors of the application are indicated to the reviewer. After submission, anonymised reviews and scores are made available to other reviewers of the same application.

Receipt of the review form from the CCF, and subsequent completed return, form a 'mutual confidentiality agreement' covering the response. This information will not be released without prior approval unless it is seen to be overwhelmingly in the public interest, i.e. when the benefits of disclosure outweigh the duty of confidentiality. 

Confidentiality of reviewer identity

Reviewer identity is not disclosed to applicants and anonymous reviews are returned to applicants. It may be disclosed to committee members, except where there is a conflict of interest. It is planned to publish lists of those undertaking review for CCF annually.  

Confidentiality of committee discussions

Committee discussions are recorded during the meeting and form the basis of the meeting minutes and the feedback/outcome letters to applicants. Comments are not attributed to individual committee members. The full minutes are considered confidential and, in most cases, these are circulated to committee members, CCF and DHSC staff involved in the commissioning process. Where there is a conflict of interest, the minutes of discussions of applications are omitted from the copy circulated to the
conflicted committee member.

Committee members must not disclose details of discussions or decisions to anyone outside the committee, DHSC or CCF. Individuals assigned to lead discussion (Lead Assessors or Designated committee Members) are not disclosed to applicants.

For the named NIHR programmes in (2), summary meeting minutes are published after consideration of applications at committee meetings and communication of decisions to applicants. The summary minutes contain the following details relating to committee discussions: names of committee members with conflict of interest; outcome of committee discussion for each application (reject/support/conditional support).

Confidentiality of written comments

Written comments on applications may be submitted by committee members to contribute to committee discussion, either if they will be absent from the committee meeting, or if they play a particular role in the discussion (Lead Assessor, Designated committee Member, etc.). These records are used to aid the CCF Secretariat in writing up the meeting minutes and, in some instances, contract negotiation. They are not disclosed to applicants

Confidentiality of committee member identity

Committee member identity is not considered confidential. Names and affiliations of committee members may be published on the CCF website and in other relevant documents.

For the named NIHR programmes in (2), summary meeting minutes are published after consideration of applications at committee meetings and communication of decisions to applicants. The summary minutes contain the following detail relating to committee members and observers: names of people attending committee meetings (committee members, secretariat and observers); names of committee members with apologies for non-attendance 

Confidentiality - for public reviewers and public members of committees

This document applies to members of the public acting as reviewers and committee members. If additional support or advice is needed, please contact the CCF Patient and Public Involvement team.

Freedom of Information Act

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act (2000) applies to public bodies including NIHR. It gives individuals rights to access information held about them by UK government. Any person can make a request under the Act - no restrictions on age, nationality, or place of residence. Any information can be requested - but some information might be withheld to protect various interests which are allowed for by the Act. Research applications and review reports are considered to be received in Page 4 of 12 confidence and are therefore covered by the exemption in Section 41 (see below). Exemptions under the FoI Act which may be relevant to information contained in applications and related documents, are given below:

  • Section 12 - the Department reserves the right to refuse a request where the cost of researching, extracting or copying the information is disproportionately high (i.e. >£600 or more than 2.5 days work)
  • Section 14 - Repeated requests for information or vexatious requests ("vexatious" is undefined in the Act)
  • Section 21 - Where information is reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means
  • Section 22 - Information intended for future publication - where release would result in the premature publication of research
  • Section 23 - Information supplied by, or related to, bodies dealing with security matters
  • Section 27 - International relations - where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice relations between the UK and any other state or international organisation, or international court, interests of UK abroad etc
  • Section 36(2)b - Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs - where disclosure would, or would be likely to, inhibit the free and frank provision of advice, or the free and frank exchange of views for purposes of deliberation, or would otherwise prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs
  • Section 38 - Health and Safety - where release might result in the compromising of physical or mental health, or personal security (includes information involving animal data and other sensitive areas of research).
  • Section 40 - Personal information - involving the disclosure of personal information
  • Section 41 - Information provided in confidence - by a third party
  • Section 43 - Commercial interests - where release might result in breach of commercial confidentiality.

Section 21, 23, 36, 40 and 41 exemptions are absolute exemptions i.e. they apply without qualification to information that falls within their scope. The other exemptions listed are qualified exemptions in that they are subject to a public interest test, i.e. they apply only where, on a proper assessment, the balance of then public interest is against disclosure. These cases will be decided by DHSC.

Summary of how information is handled by the CCF

Type of informationdisclose to reviewersDisclose to committee membersDisclose to applicantsPublished on website and in other programme documentsDisclose to the public if requested under FOI
Application number and title (application number only for outline proposals) Yes Yes Yes, on website as part of summary meeting minutes (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP) Yes, on website as part of summary meeting minutes (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP) Publicly available on website as part of summary meeting minutes (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP)
Complete or part applications Yes Yes, if no conflict of interest Only applicant’s own application Only applicant approved abstracts from successful applications. Includes Chief Investigator name and affiliation. No
Peer and public review comments Anonymous comments relating to applications reviewed Yes, if no conflict of interest Anonymous comments relating to applicant’s own application No No
Peer reviewer name As part of annual list (planned); not at time of review, and not in association with details of application reviewed Yes, if no conflict of interest As part of annual list (planned); not at time of review, and not in association with details of application reviewed Annual list of names publicly available on website (planned) Annual list of names publicly available on website (planned)
Public reviewer name As part of annual list (planned); not at time of review, and not in association with details of application reviewed No (i4i, RfPB); Yes (PRP, PGfAR) As part of annual list (planned); not at time of review, and not in association with details of application reviewed Annual list of names publicly available on website (planned) Annual list of names publicly available on website (planned)
Peer and public review review score (committee score for Senior Investigators) Yes, those scores relating to applications reviewed (not Senior Investigators) Yes, if no conflict of interest Yes (if requested) No No
List of committee members (excluding committee observers) Yes Yes Yes Yes, on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP) Publicly available on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP)
Attendance at meeting, as recorded in minutes (including committee observers) and conflicts of interest Yes Yes Yes Yes on website as part of summary meeting minutes (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP) Yes
Names of Lead Assessors/ Designated committee Member No Yes No No No
Written comments (from committee members)  No Yes, if no conflict of interest  No  No  No
Full meeting minutes  No Yes, if no conflict of interest Only those parts relating to applicant’s own application  No  No
Summary meeting minutes Yes, on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or  Yes Yes, on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP) Yes, on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or Publicly available on website (not Senior Investigators, Research Design Services, infrastructure or PRP)
Equality and diversity monitoring information (where collected)  No  No No (data is anonymised, so applicant’s own data is not available  No  No