The research councils want to review universities' use of funds designed to cover the "full economic cost" of university research amid concerns that they are being diverted from research infrastructure.
Times Higher Education has learnt that the seven councils have approached vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, the UK funding councils and the Research Funders' Forum to seek agreement for a "big picture" review.
The review, which is yet to be given the go-ahead, would please those academics who are increasingly anxious about how universities are spending the extra FEC money which, since September 2005, has been added to research council grants to cover the indirect costs of research, such as staff time, equipment and general infrastructure.
John Wood, a professor of molecular neurobiology at University College London, said scientists would like complete transparency.
"Our worry is that money for scientific research and the facilities necessary for such work may be diverted into other worthy but inappropriate activities," he said.
One university administrator added: "The real point at issue is whether FEC is being used for the purposes for which it was intended or has it been used to increase (research) volume."
The development is likely to raise concerns among university heads that the research councils may be looking to reduce universities' financial autonomy. Currently, it is for individual universities to determine how they allocate the 80 per cent of FEC that they receive on research grants from the councils, as long as it supports the long-term sustainability of research.
But Stuart Ward, the director of resources at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on behalf of Research Councils UK, said: "Research councils are a major player in FEC and the way in which it is being implemented. It is entirely appropriate that the RCUK executive group would wish to consider whether the objectives have been achieved."
Mr Ward said it was too early to give details of the scope of any review, but that RCUK saw it as something that the Research Funders' Forum could take forward, drawing on quality assurance programmes already in place at the research councils.
A UUK spokesman confirmed that discussions with RCUK on a "stock take" of FEC had been held and that UUK agreed in principle that it was something that should be done during 2008.
"It is important that universities can demonstrate that FEC is being put to good use. Discussions indicate that universities are doing so, but it is important that we can demonstrate that to the people who write the cheques," said the spokesman.
He added that there needed to be a "high level of accountability and transparency" when it came to how FEC was spent but said there was also an important principle that universities "have autonomy to invest strategically in infrastructure".
RCUK and UUK both stressed that they were not aware of any issues with institutions mismanaging FEC budgets.
But Bob Bushaway, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Higher Education Management and Policy at the University of Southampton asked why, if research councils had no problems with universities' FEC implementation, a review was needed. "What is the new concern the councils have? They should articulate it. There are more than enough checks and balances."