There may be no future funding for Scottish departments rated 3a or 3b in the forthcoming research assessment exercise, the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has warned.
Shefc is reviewing the way it funds research, and in a second-stage consultation paper warns that from 2002-03, its priority will be to safeguard the level of funding for 4, 5 and 5-starred departments.
It won broad support for this strategy in its initial consultation. But it spells out that this will mean being increasingly selective in distributing funds.
If research quality improves at the same rate as between the 1992 and 1996 RAEs, it would cost more than £30 million to maintain the link between ratings and funds for 4, 5 and 5-starred departments, Shefc says.
If this extra funding is not available after the 2001 RAE, the current system would mean slashing money for active researchers in the top-rated departments.
But Shefc says this would militate against its aim to promote "a high-quality, internationally competitive research base". A more selective approach would mean less funding "and even possibly no funding" for departments that are rated 3a and 3b.
Before the last RAE, Shefc flagged up a similar prospect for departments rated 2, which subsequently were no longer funded.
Shefc recognises the danger of stifling potentially high-quality research by concentrating on too narrow a range of subjects or institutions. One possible solution is to target extra funding through a revamping of its research development grant. This was launched three years ago to boost collaboration between institutions and to promote research that benefits Scottish society.
Shefc is seeking reaction to its proposal to divide this into three strands. Some £5 million annually could be allocated to departments that are rated 3a or below but that win external research funds. There would be an annual competition for another £7 million for "strategic research development", helping centres of excellence to link to European networks.
Shefc also wants to build on links with the Scottish Executive, which have already led to joint funding programmes in veterinary science and primary health care.