Universities will have to give the Government a year's notice before closing struggling departments, the Treasury announced this week as part of its long-awaited ten-year investment plan for science.
The move suggests a more interventionist role for higher education funding chiefs and the first steps towards a national plan for subject provision - prompting accusations that the Government is encroaching on university autonomy.
Unveiling his ten-year framework for science, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, pledged that research and development spend would reach 2.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2014, making the UK a genuine threat to US dominance in the science spending stakes for the first time.
Research funding from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry will reach £5 billion by 2007-08, doubling the science budget since 1997. The framework gives the Higher Education Funding Council for England responsibility for protecting threatened subjects, providing it with something of a national planning role.
Alan Johnson, Minister for Higher Education, said: "It's a ten-year science strategy and we have to protect and nurture our science base. We don't want to be interventionist, but we do want time to react to developments."
Sir Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group, said: "I'm relaxed about a government body having a view about the health of a particular discipline."
But he warned that making a 12-month notice period before the closure of any department a condition of grant would "go down like a lead balloon" because it was "direct interference in the autonomy of a university".
Lord May, president of the Royal Society, said: "Lenin and Stalin tried that in Russia and it didn't work. We are moving from being a light-touch system to a bureaucratically rigid system with silly goals. Government officials making judgements about what we do and do not need is lunacy."
At Hefce, Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research, said that the council would consider the future of minority subjects with potential economic importance, such as Chinese studies, and areas such as the physical sciences, where there were recruitment problems and departments facing closure.
He said: "It is a question of looking at supply and demand. It will require judgement about what is in the national interest, in consultation with the higher education community. A decision taken by an institution in isolation may be fine, but if three institutions in a region make the same decision, that has national consequences."
According to the framework, Hefce will consider providing extra funding to departments if there is "a powerful case" that weakening provision in a region would hinder student access to subjects vital to the economy.