The latest research assessment exercise has shown a "real and genuine improvement" in the quality of geographical research, according to the chair of the geography panel.
Richard Munton, professor of human geography at University College London, held a plenary session at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers' annual conference in Belfast last week to reveal its findings.
Professor Munton said that exact comparisons could not be made with the 1996 RAE. There had been a drop from 69 to 62 submissions. Only 49 departments submitted to both RAEs.
Institutions were becoming more adroit at approaching the RAE, and part of the improvement stemmed from a fall in the number of weak submissions, he said.
But grades, and the number and proportion of staff in departments rated 4 and above, had undoubtedly risen, largely because of improved quality, he said.
Departments had been investing in staff and infrastructure. The panel estimated that each member of staff was responsible for an average of some £100,000 of research income, a rise of about 30 per cent on the 1994-95 figure.
Geography was unusual in setting up a sub-panel of research users - including public agencies, government departments, charities and the private sector - to inform its work.
"The users set very high intellectual standards and reported very enthusiastically on the quality," he said.
The panel of overseas experts had also confirmed that it was setting an appropriate standard for work of international excellence.
Professor Munton said that while the panel did not know what the funding implications would be, it was unhappy that these might vary across the country, depending on the approach of individual funding councils.
"We did feel it was somewhat unfortunate that submissions graded the same as far as the panel was concerned could be rewarded differently," he said.
The geography panel plans to put a detailed analysis of its work on the RGS-IBG website next month.
"The panel has always produced a report in the belief that if it stands in judgement with consequences for departments, we must engage in continuing discussion about how it was done and why we reached the decisions we did," Professor Munton said.