Education secretary David Blunkett has hinted in a lecture to social scientists that he would like to see widespread changes to the research assessment exercise.
Speaking at an event arranged by the Economic and Social Research Council on whether social science can improve government, he said: "We have to find ways of ensuring the review process does not stifle the people stepping outside the norm, allowing people to think and develop areas that otherwise would go unnoticed."
He suggested the Department for Education and Employment could promote change, adding: "We have to act in our own department in influencing the way the Higher Education Funding Council for England reacts."
The House of Commons education select committee is examining the RAE in its review of higher education and expects to report later this year.
The Department for Trade and Industry is also looking at the RAE under plans to introduce a national science and innovation strategy.
It has questioned whether it is the most efficient way of financing universities to produce commercial scientific research.
Meanwhile, the funding councils are considering the RAE's "continuing fitness" past the next round.
Sir Brian Fender, chief executive of HEFCE, who attended the lecture, said:
"David Blunkett was quite properly expressing what his area of interest is but at the end of the day we hand out the money. He can always buy applied research."
He said any alteration of RAE criteria could only be carried out with extensive consultation and the coming round had almost been finalised.
In a published version of his speech, Mr Blunkett stresses the importance of ensuring that the RAE takes into account research accessibility and dissemination.
"I will ensure that we work with HEFCE to establish the importance of the RAE criteria reflecting influence on policy and practice across the full range of social science disciplines.
"That does not mean that we expect researchers to limit their work to narrowly conceived government agendas but that the outputs from high-quality research which address priorities for policy and practice are given due recognition," Mr Blunkett said.