A RADICAL paring of the number of institutions and departments involved in research was signalled this week.
Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientific adviser, called for research and postgraduate provision to be concentrated in fewer departments, and for new universities to abandon any plans to become major research centres.
His comments came as the Higher Education Funding Council for England unveiled proposals for institutions to pay a deposit for each submission to the next Research Assessment Exercise.
In an idea resembling bidding in Contract Bridge, universities could be asked to make a down-payment along with a forecast on what RAE rating they think a department should achieve. The money would be returned if the department achieved or exceeded the rating.
HEFCE's proposal, designed to stop departments entering the RAE simply because they have nothing to lose, is one of a range of suggestions for improving the RAE spelled out in a consultation paper sent to institutions this week.
It echoes Sir Robert's call for greater selectivity in funding. He told The THES radical changes were needed in the way research is organised in universities.
Reforms needed include increased mission differentiation for institutions, with fewer university departments maintaining research provision, greater research selectivity and a requirement for research councils to meet the full indirect costs of research.
Like Margaret Beckett, president of the Board of Trade, Sir Robert doubts there would be "many or any" supporters in industry or charities for a new revolving loan fund as proposed by Sir Ron Dearing to cover universities' equipment needs.
He instead calls for the Joint Research Equipment Initiative to be extended to cover all infrastructure.
Sir Robert described the system whereby the RAE encourages all universities to aspire to a research role as "perverse".
Rather, he agrees with Dearing's recommendation that funding council support should be limited to departments with at least a 3a rating, adding that in time qualifying standards may have to be increased.
Funding arrangements should encourage departments, or whole institutions, to take strategic decisions on their research role, with incentives for those whose strengths lie in teaching to opt out of the RAE, Sir Robert said.
But he warned that "it would be a serious mistake if this were set up in such a way as to create an open-ended commitment for scholarship funding at the expense of the funds needed to support top-quality research".
Differences in mission should be encouraged. "There is no point, for example, in new universities trying to become major research centres, though if they have good individuals these will be supported by the research councils."
Sir Robert added: "It is not clear to me, or to the Council for Science and Technology, that the UK can sensibly seek to maintain research and postgraduate provision in all of the main fields of science and technology in most or even as many as half the total number of UK universities. I think there may be a strong case for gradually concentrating UK research and postgraduate provision in fewer, better and better-supported departments."
HEFCE said it wants selective funding to continue, although it remains open as to whether this should be based on an RAE.
Alternatives could be a rolling programme covering different subject groups in different years, or an option interim RAE.
FUNDING COUNCIL OPTIONS FOR REVISED RESEARCH ASSESSMENT CRITERIA
*Taking into account the value for money of certain research, or its relevance to wealth creation and quality of life or its developmental value.
*Institutional visits for certain categories - perhaps top-rated departments or those on theborderline between ratings.
*Redefining subject areas,particularly in medicine, where some have complained that the breadth and variable quality of departments included may have suppressed the ratings.
*Formalising ways for different panels to work together.
*a single interdisciplinary monitoring group and/or general criteria for interdisciplinary submissions.
*Seeking international validation for top-rated submissions.
*Re-numbering the grades 1 to 7 rather than 1 to 5* and showing the number of staff included. For example, a published rating of 7B would denote a top quality submission in which, say, less than 85 per cent of staff were submitted.
Comments on the consultation are needed by March 13 next year. By early summer, institutions should know whether there is to be an RAE and the planned timescale. Details of a future exercise should be known by spring 1999, after further consultation.