Plans to reform the research councils' peer-review system for allocating grants could threaten the dual-support funding system, the Higher Education Policy Institute warned this week.
Funding for UK research is distributed by the research councils, which hand out about £1 billion a year in grants for specific research projects, and the funding councils, which distribute £1.5 billion in block grants for research infrastructure based on the results of the research assessment exercise.
But a Hepi report published this week says that the cost of the research councils' system is 20 times more than the cost of conducting the RAE. According to the councils' figures, it costs £196 million a year to run the peer-review processes to allocate £1 billion, compared with the RAE's £14 million a year to allocate £1.5 billion.
Research Councils UK is consulting on how to cut the costs, with plans to distribute more money in larger blocks. RCUK chair Ian Diamond said the aim was to look at ways to free up researchers' time. But Hepi says the proposals will make the research councils' role too similar to that of the funding councils.
The plan, which is out for consultation until January 19, is "naive", Hepi says. At present, the research councils can make strategic investments in public or political priorities, such as climate change, and this role could be diminished by the reforms.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, said: "There is a valuable role for the research councils, but it is not the focus of these proposals. This would make them more like the funding councils and, given that they are more expensive, it would put their role at risk and would be an unwise direction to go in. Research council peer review is expensive, but it's a price worth paying if it is distinctive."
* The higher education funding councils should be abolished and UK universities freed of state control, according to a paperJto be published next week by theJAdam Smith Institute. Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, calls for Hefce cash to be transferred to "needs-blind funding agencies to allow students regardless of background to access higher education on the grounds solely of merit".