Research councils fear that the Department of Trade and Industry will attempt to fill a hole in its coffers by clawing back £140 million that is already earmarked for research, it emerged this week.
All the research councils pool the money left over from one budget round to the next in what is known as the "end-of-year flexibility fund". Based on their total budgets, each council gets a proportionate share of the fund, which they use for extra budget commitments.
This year's fund of some £140 million was allocated in advance to cover the cost of research grant rounds and programmes over the next three years.
Last week, as Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, unveiled the 2006 Pre-Budget Report, it is understood that Alistair Darling, the Trade and Industry Secretary, told senior research council officials to inform him by the end of the week what they would have to give up if the £140 million went to the DTI.
It is expected Mr Darling will confirm that the money will be taken from the research councils to go to the DTI. It remains to be decided whether this will be taken in one fell swoop or in instalments and how the DTI will use it.
The move would deprive the scientific research councils of the most money, but the same proportion of the budgets of all the research councils will be taken.
The decision comes just weeks after the resignation of David Sainsbury, who long served as Science Minister. "The fact that he has left has made this possible," an insider commented.
It is thought that the DTI may use the money to bolster its Technology Strategy Board but, if not, it will be lost from the science budget altogether.
According to reports, the DTI is under threat of being scrapped by Mr Brown if he becomes Prime Minister. It is believed that he plans to replace it with a larger energy department and a separate science department.
A source close to the research councils said: "It will be seen as the DTI robbing its backpocket to fill political gaps.
"The impact of sudden budget changes will fall on quite sensitive areas: the research councils tend to be into long-term commitments they are contractually tied to, so the more flexible activities such as studentships and fellowships will be hardest hit."
The DTI commented: "There have been some discussions at working level about how the DTIJmanages itsJtotal budgetJin the light ofJthe overall fiscal position, andJas part of prudent financial management.JNo decisions have been taken."