Top dog: the University of Cambridge scored highly in biological sciences. Credit: A. Dunn

British universities are bubbling with speculation about how the annual £1.5 billion (US$2.2 billion) in government funding for research will be distributed, following the nation's most extensive audit of research quality.

Of the 52,400 academic researchers from 159 universities that entered the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), published on 18 December, 17% were regarded as world-leading (rated 4-star), and 37% as internationally excellent (rated 3-star). These results will largely determine the way that higher-education funding councils allocate the money in the academic years spanning 2009–14. But universities will have to wait until 4 March 2009 to find out exactly how the results translate into cash.

The British government and the funding councils have long maintained a policy concentrating funding on the best research. Departments with high ratings are usually awarded more money per volume of staff than those with lower ranks, with funds divided according to an algorithm drawn up by the funding councils of England, Scotland and Wales. This has traditionally resulted in the same 25 or so institutions winning around 80% of the available funding, a situation that is unlikely to change this time round, according to one former vice-chancellor of a research-intensive university.

But the latest RAE results show that highly rated research is spread much more widely than that core of 25. Forty-nine universities had at least some 4-star research in their submissions, and at least half of the submissions from 118 universities were rated 4-star or 3-star. This raises fears that the funding will be spread too thinly — or that some top-quality research will not be supported. "This could seriously erode Britain's position as a world leader, particularly in biomedical sciences, in which the United Kingdom is second only to the United States," says Steve Smith, principal of the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London.

Concentrating the funding at the top will also leave little cash for the next class of research, designated as internationally recognized (2-star), forcing funding councils to choose between their commitment to reward excellence wherever it is found, and selectively targeting their research money. "I don't think they can do both, and they now have a big problem," the former vice-chancellor says.


Click for larger image. Credit: Source: RAE

"The policy is to fund the best properly and then see what is left for the rest," confirms a source connected to previous RAEs. He anticipates that 2-star work will receive at least some funding — there would be a great backlash otherwise, he says — but "my suspicion is that the money will certainly run out before 1-star [nationally recognized work]," he says.

Work submitted to the RAE is judged by peer review, using experts from many countries to ensure robust quality comparisons with the rest of the world. However, the RAE does not directly compare UK researchers or institutions against their overseas competitors. William Schowalter, a chemical engineer from Princeton University in New Jersey and one of the RAE's international judges, says that he is "convinced" the benchmarks were set appropriately.

"We can be confident that the results are consistent with other benchmarks indicating that the United Kingdom holds second place globally to the United States in significant subject fields," says David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which runs the RAE.

Nature analysed RAE data on the top-performing universities in four key disciplines (see graph). The University of Cambridge ranked highest in both physics and biological sciences. And in chemistry, 40% of the university's submissions achieved a 4-star grade — 10% more than its nearest rival.

Of the four subjects, physics had the broadest distribution of top-quality research, with 16 departments awarded 4-star for 20% or more of their submissions. And biological-science departments made more RAE submissions than any other subject, with five universities — including Leeds, Manchester and Cambridge — submitting more than 100 academics for assessment.

This year's RAE is the sixth and final exercise of its kind to be run in Britain. The government decided in 2006 to replace it with the Research Excellence Framework, which will rely more heavily on metrics such as publication citations to judge the quality of research. The move has been prompted by the expense and administrative burden that peer review places on institutions: the 2008 assessment cost HEFCE £12 million to run, more than twice as much as the previous RAE in 2001.

The changes will be closely watched by other nations that already use, or are in the process of implementing, similar research assessment systems, including Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

A spokesman from Hong Kong's University Grants Committee, which allocates funding on the basis of the region's own RAE, told Nature that it is "conscious of the burden the RAE places on institutions". The committee is already consulting academic institutions about the assessment process, and "one of the factors we shall take into account is the release of the UK RAE [2008 results] and the reaction to it, as well as further developments in the metrics model the United Kingdom is moving towards".