Australian university vice-chancellors are threatening to withdraw support from the research funding framework after the Government included research council cash in the overall proposal.
Education Minister Brendan Nelson plans to alter the allocation procedure for more than A$1 billion (£424 million) in research funds. In a surprise statement accompanying the release of a report on a new research quality framework, Dr Nelson indicated that grants allocated by the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council could become part of theRQF process.
A draft of the preferred model sent earlier this month to the vice-chancellors and the research sector made no reference to linking the A$1 billion in grants distributed annually by the two research councils.
But, last week, Dr Nelson said his department would develop means by which the RQF would affect the councils' funding.
"The research quality framework will provide the Government with the basis for redistributing funding to ensure that areas of the highest quality of research are rewarded," Dr Nelson said.
His comments created consternation across the sector, with vice-chancellors, research groups and unions expressing opposition. The original proposal for the RQF was to devise a means of allocating university block grants worth A$400 million a year by measuring and ranking the quality and impact of research groups, as distinct from individuals. In contrast, the ARC and NHMRC selection processes are rigorous assessments of applications for funding from individuals or small teams.
ARC chief executive Peter Hoj, who is a member of the RQF expert advisory group, said several times that his council would not be part of the RQF.
Vice-chancellors' committee president Di Yerbury also said that vice-chancellors would support the framework - but on the condition that new money was provided and the current system of allocating the existing A$1 billion in grants through the ARC and NHMRC be maintained Snow Barlow, president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, said Dr Nelson had "unequivocally upheld this principle on several occasions".
Professor Barlow said: "It is of great concern that this principle is under threat. If the minister insists on using RQF rankings in ARC or NHMRC grant assessments and approvals, this is likely to create perverse outcomes.
"It is quite conceivable that an outstanding researcher associated with a comparatively lower ranked research group or university could miss out on a grant that he or she would have received if judged solely on merit.
Conversely, modest performers in highly rated research groups may win grants they otherwise would not have received."
In its report, the expert committee says the RQF should focus on research quality whose value would be related to its impact. Institutions would decide, against a set of guidelines, which research groups would be assessed.
As with Britain's research assessment exercise, panels should be established on broad disciplinary lines, the committee says. Panels should consist of a majority of academic peer-reviewers with additional research end-user reviewers, as appropriate.
The committee will make final recommendations to the Government late next month.