International agricultural research centres (IARCs) have a mission to reduce poverty, improve food security, human health and nutrition, and ensure sustainable management of natural resources. Their role in the research for development (R4D) continuum has long been a subject of discussion, often with emphasis that they should conduct research that produces international public goods (IPGs). However, national agricultural research systems (NARS) in many developing countries have insufficient capacity to translate these products into welfare benefits. This coupled with higher dependence on bilateral donors that exert pressure to show impacts have increasingly driven IARCs to engage in participatory downstream work. This shift has been criticized for placing emphasis on local development agendas at the expense of IPG delivery. This paper uses insights from the literature to discuss the rationale for setting up IARCs under the consultative group on international agricultural research (CGIAR), their governance and transformation over the years and the critical question of how the centres should position themselves. A conceptual framework based on transaction cost economics and fiscal federalism literature is used to complement discussions on their comparative advantage from a normative point of view. While low transaction intensity, asset specificity, economies of scale and potential for spillovers are important attributes of transactions that increase the comparative advantage of IARCs over other actors in the R4D spectrum, contextual factors in different locations may drive centres to deviate from conducting activities that they are best at.