Plans for a new system to replace the research assessment exercise have been thrown into disarray by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, who has called for a fresh debate about how to reward academics who provide policy advice to Government.
Mr Denham told Times Higher Education that he had thrown "a rock into the pond", upsetting plans for the research excellence framework (REF) developed over the past year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on advice from the Government.
Under proposals out for consultation, Hefce intends to judge scientific research on three measures only: a department's research income, its postgraduate student numbers, and a count of the number of times academics' published research is cited by their peers.
But in an address to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce last week, Mr Denham said he was concerned that academics and departments that engaged in public policy advice were undervalued.
He said: "To my mind, scientists who produce fewer research papers but produce excellent evidence and advice in the national interest should not feel that they may disadvantage themselves, their research colleagues or their institution when research funds are distributed.
"It is surely better that I throw this particular rock into the pond while this consultation is taking place rather than after. The great thing about being the Secretary of State is that you can say these things in public even if Hefce has launched a consultation."
Kathy Sykes, a professor of public engagement in science at Bristol University, said it was "glorious" that Mr Denham had opened a new debate about how to judge research quality. "We all know that some of the absolutely crucial things that academics in universities do just can't be measured by metrics."
Experts warned that accommodating Mr Denham's ideas would mean a radical departure from current proposals. They say the type of work he seeks to recognise would be extremely difficult to measure using metrics. It could include reports to Government, committee membership and verbal advice, Mr Denham told Times Higher Education.
"Mr Denham's views are pretty groundbreaking given that Hefce looks likely, through its adoption of metrics, to take an even narrower view of what counts as good science," said Jack Stilgoe, a senior researcher at think-tank Demos.
"What he is suggesting broadens and diversifies, which is key, (but) it is at odds with the Treasury, which would rather we judge science solely in terms of papers and patents."
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said academic policy advice would be hard to incorporate within the proposals made so far by Hefce. "There is no room in such a system for the sort of qualitative judgments needed to accommodate the Secretary of State's views."
He said he would be "surprised" if there were any objective metrics that would be generally acceptable for such a purpose, but if the role Hefce envisaged for its expert panels expanded to "light-touch peer review", Mr Denham's suggestion could perhaps be accommodated.
Rama Thirunamachandran, Hefce's director for research, said the council would consider "with Government and others" how best to reward public policy and public engagement within the REF.