Plans to commercialise more university research by channelling up to £200 million through the English regions could fail because regional bodies lack the capacity to handle the job, experts have claimed.
The claims undermine a central plank of the Lambert review of business-university links, commissioned by the Treasury. The report calls on the nine regional development agencies to deliver a funding stream worth between £100 million and £200 million to help improve universities' output of research relevant to local businesses.
Gordon Brown, the chancellor, commissioned the report from Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times , to lend weight to his push for a knowledge-driven economy in which universities play a bigger part in local and regional economies by producing marketable research.
The chancellor is set to make research, development and innovation the centrepiece of this summer's comprehensive spending review, and the Lambert report will inform much of his thinking. He will signal his intention for the spending review in his budget speech on March 17.
But Niki Cleal, the Lambert project team leader who is coordinating responses to the review, questioned whether RDAs were the "right vehicle" to deliver the extra money.
Speaking at a conference at Cambridge University last Friday, Ms Cleal said: "There are alternatives to RDAs. The money could come to universities directly through the Higher Education Innovation Fund or the Department of Trade and Industry."
The Confederation of British Industry and the Council for Industry and Higher Education support RDAs having a greater role in distributing funds.
But Richard Brown, CIHE chief executive, said: "There is a question mark over the current experience and overall responsibilities of RDAs."
Ms Cleal and Mr Brown stressed that the new science and industry councils, pioneered by the Northwest Development Agency, might provide the expertise needed to better link RDA and university priorities.
Sir Tom McKillop, chief executive of AstraZeneca and chair of the RDA's science council, has been asked by Mr Brown to help establish such councils nationally.
George Baxter, head of innovation and enterprise at the Northwest Development Agency, said: "[The science and industry councils] are not like mini-research councils, they are made up of people used to investing in research and looking for returns."
Rama Thirunamachandran, director for research and knowledge transfer at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "All the funding councils recognise that the regional dimension of higher education is very important. Our concern is to ensure complementarity between regional and national strategies."
Vice-chancellors were due to discuss RDAs and the Lambert review at their spring conference on Friday. The closing date for responses to the Lambert report also falls on March 5.
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