The English funding council is to lose its chief research policy expert midway through the process of setting up a replacement for the research assessment exercise, sparking fears of a possible policy vacuum.
It was announced last week that Rama Thirunamachandran, director for research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is to leave in June to take up the post of deputy vice-chancellor at Keele University.
Commentators said that his timing could not have been worse for the council, which has just undergone a reorganisation. Dr Thirunamachandran is currently overseeing the 2008 RAE and the simultaneous development of the new research excellence framework.
Both Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and a former director of policy at Hefce, and Jonathan Adams, director of the education consultancy Evidence, raised concerns over what his departure could mean for the organisation.
Dr Bekhradnia said: "It is a superb appointment for Keele. For Hefce (the loss) is quite serious; they relied on him to make sense of the brief they had been given by the Government to replace the RAE.
"It is unfortunate for Hefce, but also for the sector, that he is leaving before the problem has been resolved."
Dr Adams said: "I am sure that there are senior staff in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills ... who will see this as an opportunity to fully align policies on research funding with key government needs."
Dr Thirunamachandran told Times Higher Education that his departure had "no ulterior motive" and that he was going because after a decade at Hefce he wanted a new challenge. "Keele represents an exciting opportunity ... I have no doubt that it will be business as usual (at Hefce) when I depart," he said.
He added that items on his agenda before his departure included the REF's move into pilot phase in the second half of April.