A new model for distributing university research funding to a narrower band of universities has been proposed by the Confederation of British Industry, writes Julia Hinde.
The CBI has written to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, senior civil servants and ministers, saying: "The timing is right for change in the funding of research."
It proposes a central money pot to which university departments can bid to support centres of "research excellence". The costs, direct and indirect, of the centres would be met in full from the pot. The CBI wants an all-or -nothing model, where centres not fully funded from the pot, receive no core funding.
"The problem we have with the research assessment exercise is that it was established when there were only 42 universities. Now there are 117. We cannot afford 117 research universities," said Philip Wright, senior policy adviser in the CBI's technology group. "If we want to sustain leading research centres we have to make sure they are properly funded with the equipment and the flexibility they need."
The CBI's proposal is for the centres of excellence to be funded on a five-year rolling programme with annual assessments. Centres, which could be based on individual departments, across a number of departments or could even be virtual, would receive some seed-corn funding to allow for speculative research, alongside money to cover everything from research staff and technicians to equipment, infrastructure and central resources such as computing and library facilities.
These centres would not be expected to cover every topic within a particular field, and researchers outside the centres of excellence would still be able to bid for research council grants, which would cover overheads in full.
Dr Wright added that the CBI was aware that a new RAE for 2001 was now likely. "Ministers have expressed interest in our views," Dr Wright said.
"Probably the 2001 RAE will go ahead. But after that we can start asking fundamental questions about whether it is serving our needs."