Nature | Editorial

Portfolio boost

People who fund or manage many research projects could do it better with mindful analysis.

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Imagine that you are in charge of a foundation funding a substantial range of research projects, or a university wanting to understand the broader benefits of its research. With a clear view of your institution’s over­arching mission, you seek good researchers. You might then conclude: as long as they deliver impactful research, your job is done.

But you could benefit from standing back and analysing the situation through different lenses. For example, you could check whether research projects display undesirable uniformity in their underlying assumptions. You could enable collaboration between research strands that happen to be converging on a particular social or technological outcome. Or you might find ways to diversify, maximizing the chances that something valuable (such as a diagnostic) will emerge even if the central goal (such as a vaccine) turns out not to be achievable.

Such are the virtues of research-portfolio analysis. Those intrigued by such mindfulness should turn to a study (M. L. Wallace and I. Rafols Minerva 53, 89–115; 2015) that looks at relevant literature from recent decades, and highlights the benefits of inward-looking analysis that also creates opportunities for transparency and stakeholder engagement. The study highlights the limitations of corporate approaches to portfolio analysis that are geared to financial returns and well-defined markets — in contrast to the broader aims of government, philanthropic funders and universities.

In analysing how projects and themes can be mapped in ways that highlight “cognitive proximity”, this work may help those who run research portfolios to get better bangs for their bucks. It might even help to make the world a better place.

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