The nation's research excellence cannot be sustained unless money is found for up-and-coming research and overworked researchers, according to a report published this week.
Research funding will be cut next year despite an extra £244 million to pay for the results of last year's research assessment exercise by 2005-06, announced in last month's spending review. The report, by consultancy firm Evidence on behalf of Universities UK and the funding councils, suggests that a delay in fully funding the outcome of the 2001 exercise will have damaging consequences.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of UUK, said: "This is a key new report that backs our call for additional investment in the sector.
"While the increase in funding for research announced in last week's spending review is a positive step, there is still a significant interim shortfall for the sector until the outcome of the 2001 research assessment exercise is fully funded."
The report describes grade 4 departments - where virtually all the research is nationally excellent - as a "platform" from which to develop world-class research. It says: "Attrition of this platform through lower core funding and flexibility would have significant medium-term effects."
The report also calls for investment in staff. It outlines how "the effectiveness and achievements of UK research base" come from "a 'squeezing of the assets' that are the academic and research staff".
It states: "The system depends on their contributions, motivated by research opportunity rather than by personal gain. But the opportunities to pursue research challenges have led to university staff taking on greater workloads and working longer hours than previously.
"Sustaining the UK's pattern of improvement in the face of growing international competition is now threatened because these people may become demotivated unless research funds are sufficient to make it worthwhile to strive for the highest grades."
The report welcomes the review of the RAE as being "appropriate and timely, as it is possible that the present structure has essentially fulfilled its purpose. A revision to the assessment process will be required to extend and maintain the present pattern of excellence."
Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of Ulster University, welcomed the report's confirmation that the UK's higher education research base was extremely competitive by international standards. But he warned that the report also concluded that this might be unsustainable if funding levels were not maintained.
"The case for investment in university research and technology transfer is compelling, and we hope government is listening," he said.