A meeting to thrash out how best to assess clinical medical research in the next research assessment exercise will be held later this month in an attempt to end months of uncertainty.
Despite the appointment last month of the research panel heads for the 2001 exercise, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which runs the RAE, has still not brokered an agreement between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Council of Heads of University Medical Schools (Chums).
In the 1996 RAE, several medical schools lost millions of pounds in research income despite scoring well. Colin Smith, who chairs the British Medical Association's medical academic staff committee, warned: "If unmodified, the RAE would destroy medical schools."
The size of the medical units of assessment, involving large quantities of money, means even a standstill in grade can spell financial disaster. The division of medical research into just three research units also means highly rated research groups fail to be properly recognised if they are part of an average rating medical school.
A HEFCE/Department of Health joint committee suggested sub-panels as a means of assessing smaller research units and enabling universities to distribute money to the best performers. But Chums has "serious reservations" saying sub-panels would restrict interdisciplinarity.
The CVCP is thought to favour sub-panels. Michael Corin, a policy adviser at the CVCP, said: "We want to find a way of doing this so that the financial turbulence of the past doesn't repeat." He suggests the meeting may consider a decimal place system, where institutions are not awarded straight threes or fours, but more accurate decimal place ratings. The meeting may also consider the phasing in of funding changes.