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Mapping and assessment of research portfolios

Final Report Summary - MAPREPORT (Mapping and assessment of research portfolios)

This project has developed conceptual frameworks and tools for analysing research portfolios. The term ‘research portfolio’ is increasingly used by funding agencies and large public scientific institutions as a means of characterising the research they support. While portfolios have long been used as a heuristic for managing corporate R&D (i.e. R&D aimed at gaining tangible economic benefits), they remain ill-defined in a science policy context where research is aimed at achieving diverse and sometimes conflicting societal outcomes.

The first contribution was to carry out a literature review and develop a general conceptual framework of ‘research portfolio’ in science policy. This was published in the journal Minerva in early 2015 and cited in a Nature Editorial in August 2015. Our analysis suggests that the use of the research portfolio approach when addressing a grand challenge such as ‘climate change’ or ‘obesity’ should: i) recognize the diversity of research lines relevant for a given societal challenge, given the uncertainty and ambiguity of research outcomes; ii) examine the relationships between research options of a portfolio and the expected societal outcomes; and iii) adopt a systemic perspective to research portfolios – i.e. examine a portfolio as a functional whole, rather than as the sum of the its parts.

The second contribution has been to carry out three case studies of research portfolios in the topics of ‘avian influenza’, ‘obesity’ and ‘rice’. In avian influenza, we showed that different options of the portfolio are prioritised by different institutional drivers: pharmaceutical industry priorities support mainly vaccines, publishing and public research funding pressures foster virology and basic research, whereas international and national public health organizations support epidemiological and more clinical approaches.

In the case of rice research, we contrasted the research portfolios of different countries with data of their ‘revealed’ demands, i.e. a country's aggregate relative uses of total rice output (export, domestic consumption, etc.) and the relative needs for rice technology (plant protection, increasing yields, etc.). In other words, we investigate to which extent the published research on rice in a country is related to a number of social and technological factors. We find that the profile of research on rice is only partly explained by societal demands. For example, as one could expect, a country like Thailand which is a large exporter has more rice research related consumption. However, many countries in which rice is a main staple rice represents an important nutrition source of caloric do not specialise on rice research related to nutrition.

The study of obesity revealed that most of research is focused on biology and medical research, with relatively few efforts devoted to public health and psychological or social sciences approaches – although many of the broader causes of obesity are related to social contexts and the policy options focus on social interventions.

The third contribution of the project is the development of methods to judge the value of research with a broader palette of criteria than with the traditional bibliometric tools of scientific impact – which are increasingly seen as insufficient for the evaluation of most research, particularly when related to socio-economic goals. The research is based on mixed method approaches that combine state-of-the-art quantitative mapping of science with expert interviews.