Blue skies or blue chip - which way should research go? Claire Sanders reports
University departments doing research vital to the future of the UK economy are under threat from the research assessment exercise, according to a survey by the Council for Industry and Higher Education.
In his review of business-industry links, Richard Lambert identified research crucial to industry. But many departments doing such research face serious underfunding as they failed to do well in the RAE. State funding to foster business-university links is nowhere near enough to fill the gap.
The CIHE asked its members to list valued university departments and matched these against departments ranked top in the RAE. Richard Brown, CIHE chief executive, said: "Universities such as Cranfield and Loughborough feature highly on industry's list but not in the RAE. In many instances, there is a serious mismatch."
The list, reproduced as part of the CIHE's submission to this summer's spending review, shows that "there are departments that are seen either as strategic partners or as undertaking important research that are graded only 4 or 3 under the current RAE methodology".
Under the RAE, departments rated 4 are not fully funded; those rated below 4 are not funded at all unless they are in a specially designated emerging area of research such as nursing.
BAE Systems, the BOC Group and ICI have allowed the CIHE to publish their lists of partners. Unpublished lists supplied by Unilever and Corus also show a serious mismatch between industry-valued departments and RAE ratings, according to the CIHE.
BAE Systems lists the systems engineering department at Loughborough as a strategic partner - meaning that it is particularly important. But the newly established department does not have an RAE rating.
It also lists aeronautical engineering, part of Cranfield's School of Engineering. This was rated 4 in the 2001 RAE and will receive a real-terms funding cut.
John Murphy, head of BAE Systems' university partnerships and chairman of the Confederation of British Industry's industry-university group, said:
"We have serious concerns about the RAE. We almost wonder whether by having strong links to industry, universities actually damage their RAE performance.
"We produce large products that require a broad science and technological spectrum of expertise," he said. "Historically, research has been done in depth by different groups in universities, and we have had to merge this knowledge into products.
"Our drive is to have the research carried out in parallel through networks of universities, but we need a strategic partner to pull it all together."
Four Cranfield research units or departments are listed simply as BAE partners. These departments were rated 4 in the RAE.
The CIHE lists a number of partnerships between industry and university departments that were rated below 4 in the RAE. The following are not strategic partners but have strong links:
* York University's department of electronics, which received a 3a in the RAE, is listed as a partner by BAE
* Brighton University's department of engineering, which received a 3 in the RAE, has consultancy, research and other informal links with the BOC Group
* Nottingham Trent University's advanced materials department, with a 3 rating, has links with the BOC Group
* London South Bank University's department of the built environment, which was rated 3b, works with ICI.