Pursuing Comparative Advantage

Just because a particular research program is worthwhile does not imply that a research organization should undertake it. There are many worthwhile programs, and no single organization should undertake them all. Instead, it makes sense for particular research organizations to focus on the activities in which they have a comparative advantage. This means simply that research organizations should specialize in the activities at which they are, relatively speaking, the best. Other research products may be borrowed or copied from other organizations or other countries.

Herdt (p. 398)16 makes this point explicitly and notes that "different research organizations have different responsibilities." It does not make sense to conduct a priority-setting exercise without thinking critically about the comparative advantages of the particular research institutions in question. To continue with the example of the rice biotechnology program, it would be foolish for every rice research establishment to imagine that it faced the same priorities as the Rockefeller Foundation. Different research organizations should specialize in different types of research.

To some extent, considerations of comparative advantage can be pulled into the priority-setting process by incorporating an appropriate score into measures of the likelihood of achieving success. Even so, the priority-setting process cannot substitute for careful reflection by research administrators. These administrators need to think clearly about what their organizations can best accomplish themselves, and what can be borrowed from elsewhere. The possibilities for borrowing are discussed in the next section.

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