The national interest and international standing of subjects could dictate how some research money is awarded from next year.
But the Higher Education Funding Council for England is struggling to work out how to measure the two factors.
It is asking for views on whether cash should be divided between subjects according to their importance for this country and the world.
Most research money, which totalled Pounds 804 million in 1998-99, is distributed according to research assessment ratings. It is divided between units of assessments based on 69 subjects.
But last year the funding council suggested weighting part of the money to reflect policy needs. It suggested that the government Foresight programme could help establish what those needs were.
Two years ago the council looked at how Technology Foresight's priorities could be linked to different units of assessment. But it admits that "strong views" have since been expressed that applying results of Technology Foresight to funding methods in a formulaic way would be wrong.
It suggests that research councils, charities, government and industrial sponsors, which provide two thirds of funding for research in higher education institutions, would be better able to reflect the national interests.
The HEFCE consultation paper says: "If research capability is effectively matched to the demands of project funders, the introduction of a policy factor may be unnecessary." But it could be useful "where the capability of the higher education sector is significantly out of line with demand from project funders".
Three separate studies to establish the international standing of this country's research activity have been equally inconclusive.
Establishing the reputation abroad of research by analysing patenting and published research underlying patents has had to be discontinued because of technical difficulties. Patenting activity is difficult to examine by computer and varies considerably between different subjects.
A HEFCE attempt to analyse references in research assessment exercise submissions to measure international peer esteem did not give enough evidence to draw firm conclusions or to form a basis for funding.
Finally, a bibliometric study of journal citations by a Centre for Policy Studies in Education team at the University of Leeds appeared to show variations in quality of research in English institutions compared with international benchmarks.
But the HEFCE paper says while there is a case for concentrating resources on subjects in which this country is strong, it may be just as important to target areas of weakness, particularly if they are thought to be important.
Replies to the consultation are invited by December 18.