More than half of the chemistry departments in the UK could face closure after the next research assessment exercise, academics warned MPs this week.
A panel of academics told a meeting of the House of Commons science and technology committee on Monday that chemistry departments rated 4 or below could "cease to exist" after the 2008 RAE as vice-chancellors struggle to balance their books.
The comments came as the Association of University Teachers joined the science and technology committee in calling for the 2008 RAE to be abandoned.
In the last RAE, in 2001, 26 of the 45 departments entered under the chemistry category were rated 4 or below and were not fully funded, suggesting that more than half could now be under threat. Departments that receive a 4 are judged to have some research of international standing.
Chemistry departments are notoriously expensive to run and they are facing serious problems recruiting undergraduates.
Richard Joyner, dean of research at Nottingham Trent University, gave evidence to the committee. He told The Times Higher that most chemistry departments were running a deficit. He said: "Universities face three choices: close the department down now or subsidise it until the next RAE in the hope you can take it up to 5 or 5*, then after 2008 if it has not gone up say you tried your best and close it down."
The future of chemistry and physics courses at Nottingham Trent was said this week to be in question.
A spokesperson for the university insisted that both subjects remained "key" to its future. But she said: "There will be a transition towards interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary courses relevant to the chemical and physical sciences. The last year of intake for some of the current portfolio of courses will be in 2006."
Other university chemistry departments are believed to be making staff cutbacks. Russ Bowman, professor of organic chemistry at Loughborough University, said staff in his department were being pushed to take early retirement or voluntary redundancy.
The AUT said this week that the 2008 RAE should be abandoned. Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the union, said: "There's already evidence of bullying - and if institutions do exclude people (from the exercise) their careers will be damaged and the nation could lose the benefit of much good research."
The AUT has written to vice-chancellors seeking reassurance that they will not attempt to push out staff or move them to teaching-only posts.
At Monday's select committee hearing, the academics called for a "major overhaul" of funding, but stopped short of agreeing that the next RAE should be scrapped.
Natalie Fenton, senior lecturer in communications and media studies at Loughborough, told the MPs: "It would be a problem because those who got a 4 last time and have worked hard to get to 5 would be unhappy if they find they don't have the chance to go up."
Ian Gibson, committee chair, said: "From a position of weakness the academic community seems to be going along with the botched revisions of the RAE. They have lost the vision in pursuit of their own and their institution's agenda."