Economist criticises aspects of ESRI

Mon, Jan 2, 2012, 00:00

ENERGY ECONOMIST Richard Tol, who has left the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) to take up the position of professor of economics with Sussex University, has criticised aspects of the public think-tank.

Prof Tol said the financial position of the institute affected the independence of the work it produced. He said people who worked there were discouraged from expressing personal opinions to journalists or on social media sites such as Twitter.

Efforts to contact representatives of the institute were unsuccessful.

Prof Tol spoke to The Irish Times yesterday after he had posted a number of comments on Twitter about his decision to leave the ESRI after five and a half years. “In a university you can say what you like if you behave responsibly. It’s not the same with the ESRI,” he said. “If you violate policy and upset people, you can get into trouble.”

He said the institute’s independence was compromised by the fact it got so much of its funding from government. He said this could manifest itself in the way the research it conducts is put into the public domain.

He was critical of the standard of information technology available at the institute.

In one of his tweets he said it was not a coincidence he was one of five senior research professors who had left over the past number of years. The institute has about 40 research assistants and about 10 research professors, he told The Irish Times. “So five in the last five years is significant.”

The ESRI was set up during the Lemass era to improve the quality of policy analysis available to the government.

Prof Tol said the institute did issue warnings about policy during the Ahern years, but did not do so loudly enough.

He said the institute did not have a banking expert even though during the bubble years banking was one of the economy’s largest sectors. “So the whole thing of the bank crisis caught the ESRI from left field.”

The international financial crisis, he said, was caused by factors that the whole of the international economics profession believed could not happen. “So you can’t blame the ESRI on that.”

When Ireland was joining the euro the institute had warned that fiscal policy would have to take account of the new situation, but Charlie McCreevy then became minister for finance “and went in the opposite direction to where we should be going”.

This was criticised by the institute but not loudly enough, he said. “The ESRI can make its voice heard, but it didn’t.”

Prof Tol said the view of many people in the institute now was on the financial threat to its survival – and personal relief that they had a job.

He said there were many positive aspects to working in the institute, not least the people he worked alongside and the fact he was able to engage in applied research.

A native of the Netherlands, he said he would be sad to leave Ireland, which he really loved. However, his wife was a civil engineer and they had two children.

“Ireland is facing 10 years of austerity. Leaving Ireland is the best thing you can do at the moment if you are responsible for a young family.”