Economies of Scale and Scope in Publicly Funded Biomedical and Health Research

Evidence from the Literature

Published in: Health Research Policy and Systems, 2017, 15:3, doi 10.1186/s12961-016-0167-3

Posted on on March 16, 2017

by Karla Hernandez-Villafuerte, Jon Sussex, Enora Robin, Steven Wooding

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Publicly funded biomedical and health research is expected to achieve the best return possible for taxpayers and for society generally. It is therefore important to know whether such research is more productive if concentrated into a small number of research groups’ or dispersed across many.


We undertook a systematic rapid evidence assessment focused on the research question: do economies of scale and scope exist in biomedical and health research? In other words, is that research more productive per unit of cost if more of it, or a wider variety of it, is done in one location? We reviewed English language literature without date restriction to the end of 2014. To help us to classify and understand that literature, we first undertook a review of econometric literature discussing models for analysing economies of scale and/or scope in research generally (not limited to biomedical and health research).


We found a large and disparate literature. We reviewed 60 empirical studies of (dis-)economies of scale and/or scope in biomedical and health research, or in categories of research including or overlapping with biomedical and health research. This literature is varied in methods and findings. At the level of universities or research institutes, studies more often point to positive economies of scale than to diseconomies of scale or constant returns to scale in biomedical and health research. However, all three findings exist in the literature, along with inverse U-shaped relationships. At the level of individual research units, laboratories or projects, the numbers of studies are smaller and evidence is mixed. Concerning economies of scope, the literature more often suggests positive economies of scope than diseconomies, but the picture is again mixed. The effect of varying the scope of activities by a research group was less often reported than the effect of scale and the results were more mixed.


The absence of predominant findings for or against the existence of economies of scale or scope implies a continuing need for case by case decisions when distributing research funding, rather than a general policy either to concentrate funding in a few centres or to disperse it across many.

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