Research funding should be spread across a much wider range of universities than just the traditional research elite, an exclusive analysis suggests.
The study by a leading economist tests the findings of the recent research assessment exercise on where the best work is being produced.
Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick echoed the RAE's findings that truly world-class research is far from being the preserve of a small elite of large research universities. It is being produced by a broad range of universities and less-feted departments, he said.
Admitting surprise at his findings - which were based on his own discipline, economics - he said that the results suggested that the modern obsession with "top" departments should be rethought and that the concentration of research funding on a tiny monopoly of elite universities might be a "mistake".
His arguments echo a number of the reports published by the RAE peer-review panels that assessed universities' submissions.
Noting the wide dispersal of world-leading work, one panel said it was "evidence that research funding needs to support excellence wherever it is to be found" - a sentiment that has worried some "elite" universities in advance of the RAE-driven allocations of quality-related (QR) research funding (see box below).
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has yet to determine how the RAE results will translate into funding allocations, which Times Higher Education will reveal in full on 5 March. But it is widely anticipated that because the 2008 exercise showed that excellence was spread widely across the sector, QR funding will inevitably be dispersed much more broadly and the elite will lose funding.
Professor Oswald carried out his analysis after economics was ranked as the best subject in the RAE, with per cent of all research outputs judged to be "world-leading" under the RAE grading.
He identified 450 "genuinely world-leading" research papers - the most highly cited articles published in 22 of the world's top journals between 2001 and 2008 - and found that 43, about 10 per cent of the total, were from the UK.
This was a sign that UK economics is strong on the world stage even though it produced far fewer top papers than the US, he said.
The best-performing UK institution was the London School of Economics, which notched up 12 "world-leading" articles, followed by the universities of Oxford, with 11, and Warwick, with six.
However, 18 other institutions also contributed to articles in the list, among them the universities of York, Cardiff, Kent, Lancaster, Leicester and Sheffield.
Professor Oswald said the results of his analysis were significant not only for economics but more generally for the future of research funding.
"A quarter of these objectively important articles emanate ... from departments of economics not normally considered to be in the top half-dozen in the country. I had not anticipated this result," he said.
"It suggests to me that outstanding work - a set of genuinely world-leading articles - comes from a wide range of sources, and thus, by implication, that it might be a mistake to concentrate funding narrowly on a tiny number of universities.
"Perhaps economists should take a lead in UK academia in arguing against a growing concern with 'top' departments, 'top' journals and other monopoly-creating devices."
Les Ebdon, chief executive of the Million+ think-tank and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said the post-92 universities had "come of age". He urged Hefce to honour its original promise that the RAE would fund excellence wherever it was found.
"They found so many pockets (of excellence) that we're concerned that there is now a concerted campaign to say that we must go on funding certain universities highly selectively at a very high level," he said. "That would damage the seedbed of research in this country."
David Baker, chairman of the GuildHE group, added: "It's both inappropriate and dangerous to ghettoise research into Russell Group universities, and Hefce's mantra of funding excellence wherever it is found must be followed."
- Currently, 23 English universities receive 75 per cent of all quality-related research funding, based on the results of the 2001 RAE;
- Under RAE 2008, 75 per cent of all outputs judged to be either "world leading" (4*) or "internationally excellent" (3*), which are expected to attract funding, went to 29 English universities;
- Under RAE 2008, at least some world-leading research (4*) was found in 150 of the 159 institutions that entered.
How will the research funding hierarchy change? Do not miss Times Higher Education on 5 March for the full 2009-10 funding allocation tables, out on the day they are made public.