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Research portfolios in science policy: moving from financial returns to societal benefits


  • Matthew L. Wallace

    (Ingenio (CSIC-UPV),Universitat Politècnica de València, València)

  • Ismael Rafols

    (Ingenio (CSIC-UPV),Universitat Politècnica de València, València
    SPRU, University of Sussex, UK
    Observatoire des Sciences et Téchniques (HCERES-OST), Paris)


Funding agencies and large public scientific institutions are increasingly using the term “research portfolio” as a means of characterising their research. 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 societal outcomes. In this article we analyze the discursive uses of the term “research portfolio” and propose some general considerations for their application in science policy. We explore the use of the term in private R&D and related scholarly literature in existing science policy practices, and seek insight in relevant literature in science policy scholarship. While the financial analogy can in some instances be instructive, a simple transposition from the world of finance or of corporate R&D to public research is problematic. However, we do identify potentially fruitful uses of portfolio analysis in science policy. In particular, our review suggests that the concept of research portfolio can indeed be a useful analytical instrument for tackling complex societal challenges. Specifically, the strands of scholarship identified suggest that the use of research portfolio 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. We argue that with these considerations, portfolio-driven approaches may foster social inclusion in science policy decisions, help deliberation between “alternative” portfolios to tackle complex societal challenges, as well as promote cost-effectiveness and transparency.

Suggested Citation

  • Matthew L. Wallace & Ismael Rafols, 2015. "Research portfolios in science policy: moving from financial returns to societal benefits," SPRU Working Paper Series 2015-10, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School.
  • Handle: RePEc:sru:ssewps:2015-10

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    Cited by:

    1. Yaqub, Ohid & Coburn, Josie & Moore, Duncan A.Q., 2023. "Knowledge spillovers from HIV research-funding," SocArXiv gcuhn, Center for Open Science.
    2. Wallace, Matthew L. & Ràfols, Ismael, 2018. "Institutional shaping of research priorities: A case study on avian influenza," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 47(10), pages 1975-1989.
    3. Loet Leydesdorff & Gaston Heimeriks & Daniele Rotolo, 2016. "Journal portfolio analysis for countries, cities, and organizations: Maps and comparisons," Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology, Association for Information Science & Technology, vol. 67(3), pages 741-748, March.
    4. Brattström, Erik & Hellström, Tomas, 2019. "Street-level priority-setting: The role of discretion in implementation of research, development, and innovation priorities," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 127(C), pages 240-247.
    5. Janzwood, Scott, 2021. "R&D priority-setting for global catastrophic risks: The case of the NASA planetary defense mission," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 50(6).
    6. Ciarli, Tommaso & Ràfols, Ismael, 2019. "The relation between research priorities and societal demands: The case of rice," Research Policy, Elsevier, vol. 48(4), pages 949-967.
    7. Nicola Grassano & Daniele Rotolo & Joshua Hutton & Frédérique Lang & Michael M. Hopkins, 2017. "Funding Data from Publication Acknowledgments: Coverage, Uses, and Limitations," Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology, Association for Information Science & Technology, vol. 68(4), pages 999-1017, April.
    8. Phil Johnstone & Andy Stirling, 2015. "Comparing Nuclear Power Trajectories inGermany And the UK: From ‘Regimes’ to ‘Democracies’ in Sociotechnical Transitions and Discontinuities," SPRU Working Paper Series 2015-18, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School.
    9. Janaina Pamplona da Costa, 2015. "Network (Mis)Alignment, Technology Policy and Innovation: The Tale of Two Brazilian Cities," SPRU Working Paper Series 2015-14, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School.
    10. Rafols, Ismael & Ciarli, Tommaso & Chavarro, Diego, 2015. "Under-reporting research relevant to local needs in the global south. Database biases in the representation of knowledge on rice," SocArXiv 3kf9d, Center for Open Science.
    11. Wouter van de & Alfredo Yegros-Yegros & Tim Willemse & Ismael Rafols, 2023. "Priorities in research portfolios: exploring the need for upstream research in cardiometabolic and mental health," Science and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, vol. 50(6), pages 961-976.
    12. Matias Federico Milia & Ariadna Nebot Giralt & Rigas Arvanitis, 2022. "Local emergence, global expansion: understanding the structural evolution of a bi-lingual national research landscape," Scientometrics, Springer;Akadémiai Kiadó, vol. 127(12), pages 7369-7395, December.
    13. Roman Jurowetzki, 2015. "Unpacking Big Systems - Natural Language Processing meets Network Analysis. A Study of Smart Grid Development in Denmark," SPRU Working Paper Series 2015-15, SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School.

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    research portfolio; prioritisation; research landscape; societal challenges;
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