Public access to documents is a general rule in the activities of public authorities, as is the case at the Academy of Finland. However, in the Act on the Openness of Government Activities, Parliament has laid down provisions on the secrecy of plans for scientific research and the expert opinions issued on them.
Under the Act, the following are to be kept secret:
“documents concerning the basic materials for a dissertation or other scientific study, technological or other development project, or the assessment of the same, unless it is obvious that access will not cause inconvenience to the completion of the dissertation, study or development project or their exploitation, its appropriate assessment or the person carrying out the research, nor to the person commissioning the study or development project” (section 24, subsection 1, paragraph 21)
The aim is to protect the researcher and their research idea. In order for researchers to be able to submit their plans to a funding authority for review, they must be able to rely on the authority not to disclose them or release them to be unlawfully exploited by a competitor or another third party. That is why the Act lays down provisions for the confidentiality of research plans. The same applies to the review report issued by the expert assessing the research plan, for the same reason. In other words, secrecy is in the best interest of the researcher. The authority processing the application shall respect this and ensure secrecy at the risk of criminal liability.
The Supreme Administrative Court has dealt with this matter in its yearbook decision of 10 December 2020 (KHO 2020: 140, in Finnish). In the reasoning for its decision, the Supreme Administrative Court stated, among other things, that the detailed explanatory memorandum to the Government proposal on the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (HE 30/1998 vp) states, with regard to section 24(1) (21) of the Act, that its purpose is to protect research and development and their assessment. A research plan may contain knowledge and know-how that could be unlawfully exploited and that, if it were to be made public, could impede the researcher’s activities and the progress of the research, or hamper the researcher’s professional work. Technological development may involve, for example, a product that later can be patented.
However, a key feature of the Academy’s process in the review of funding applications is that the reviews are produced on a confidential basis. This corresponds to the internationally established procedure for the scientific review of research funding applications. The Supreme Administrative Court also considered that the public nature of the review reports could generally affect their quality and content in a way that would reduce their value of use, and that the research plans to be included in the applications would be presented more generally so as not to disclose research ideas prematurely. It is also possible that the publicity of the review reports would lead to a decrease in willingness to participate in the reviews. These factors hinder the attainment of the objectives of the review procedure. The significance of this drawback in assessing the publicity of review reports does not depend on when each report has been issued.
Following international practice, applications sent by researchers to the Academy of Finland are assessed in international review panels through a process known as peer review: the members of the panels are foreign researchers well acquainted with the subject area of the application. The panels draw up review reports on the applications. Funding decisions, in turn, are made by decision-making bodies consisting of representatives of the Finnish research community. The body bases its work on the application, the panel review report and the ranking drawn up by the panel as well as the body’s own policies. The body usually briefly justifies its decision by referring to the review report.
- Ossi Malmberg, Vice President for Administration, tel. +358 295 335 003
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