Research assessment exercises covering universities in the United Kingdom were established to produce quality ratings as a basis for allocating much of the research funding from central government. They represent some of the largest research management exercises ever undertaken. Amongst other aspects of university performance, the publications of all ‘research active’ UK academics are evaluated. This paper describes the way in which quality was assessed and funds were allocated as a result of the 1992, 1996 and 2001 exercises. It looks at how the exercises might continue to evolve and the value of a further exercise. The strategies adopted by universities to maximise their ratings and their income are also considered. Universities have improved their research performance and their reporting methods in response to changes in the criteria and weightings used in the exercise. In parallel the HEFC (Higher Education Funding Council) has changed the ways in which funds have been distributed once the level of research performance has been determined. The exercises have received much criticism as well as an acceptance that they have changed the culture of academic research. This paper considers the parallel evolution of trends in the management of R&D in business with trends in the management of university research via these exercises. There are underlying assumptions that seem to influence the transfer of policy design principles and management lessons between the two sectors.