Universities are poaching entire research teams to boost their performance in the next research assessment exercise and seize the initiative in competitive fields.
Several institutions have taken big recruitment gambles in the past year to secure top grades in the 2008 assessment and to maximise their share of the billions of pounds of research money to be allocated based on RAE results.
Higher education funding chiefs have warned that university departments will not be able to ramp up their rating in the 2008 RAE by drafting in one star researcher. But RAE panel chairs confirmed this week that institutions could feasibly change a department's profile by buying in a whole team.
Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chair of RAE main panel A, a key medical research panel, said: "It is straight maths. If you are returning a team of 50 people in a unit and bring in a team of ten who are all 4* (the top RAE rating), that could make a difference to your score."
But he said that such a big gamble had to be based on the university's strategy for science: "Every vice-chancellor is well aware of the risks.
There is no guarantee that even if you secure the highest grades the unit of assessment will make that investment pay off."
Imogen Wilde, director of the education practice at headhunters Norman Broadbent, has helped recruit several teams of scientists. She said: "In their desire to attract research stars, many universities increasingly recognise that they need to attract the people who go with them. Without this support, the deal may fall through."
King's College London revealed that it had recently poached three major research teams and was negotiating with three other research groups that would bring up to 80 people with them in total.
Bristol University confirmed that it had recruited five research teams in the past year from UK and other European institutions.
Loughborough University said it had recruited a team of 11 applied vision researchers this year. Cambridge University recently brought star stem-cell researcher Austin Smith from Edinburgh University along with his team.
Not every university is following the trend. Some, including Edinburgh, Exeter and Oxford, have said they were still focusing on recruiting key individuals.
Alexander Acland, a higher education specialist at executive recruitment firm Odgers Ray and Berndtson, said: "Universities have to go into the poaching battle even if they are being told that it is not going to have an impact on their RAE score. If you don't have that top researcher in engineering, then your competitor has."
But Michael Driscoll, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said: "It will drive up the cost of good research staff as people compete to retain their staff and others fight to take them away."
Rama Thirunamachandran, research director at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said the RAE was not the only driver of recruitment.
Other factors were a wave of retirements and a rise in research funding. "A lot of people are coming in from abroad, from the US, India and China as well as Europe."