Debate over institute's independence

Thu, Jun 14, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Some strongly defend the ESRI’s outlook as apolitical. Others talk of who pays the piper . . .

CAN A State-funded research institution ever be truly independent?

It’s a question being asked in the aftermath of the ESRI’s withdrawal this week of a controversial research paper which found that many people with children would be better off on the dole than in employment.

Ever since it was founded in 1960, the institute has seen its role as providing an independent source of research for policy and civil society in Ireland.

“This independence means researchers have no fear of publishing research findings that do not provide support for government policy,” according to the ESRI’s mission statements

However, a large proportion of its funding comes from government departments and agencies. Latest published annual accounts for 2010 show that an annual grant from the government accounted for a quarter of its total income of €12.8 million. The bulk of its other funding came from research income, often from government departments or agencies.

This relationship has led to tension between the government and the ESRI on occasion. But the extent to which the institute has protected its independence is a matter of fierce debate among staffers and former employees.

Some former staff such as Richard Tol, co-author of the welfare research paper, have spoken about researchers feeling “muffled” and not being allowed to scrutinise spending on research and higher education. In a dramatic departure from the institute at the beginning of this year, he fired off a salvo of extraordinary tweets claiming the institute was home to “nepotism, xenophobia, paper tiger strategies, evidence-free policy, antiquated use of technology”.

In contrast, Liam Delaney, a former staffer now working in a Scottish university, had a much different experience when he wrote a “fairly critical” paper on horse-racing funding. “The then director was supportive despite the potential for controversy, with the caveat that ‘just make sure you can stand behind it in terms of facts’,” he told this newspaper, earlier this year.

Alan Barrett, on secondment in Trinity College from the think tank and a member of the Government’s fiscal advisory council, has also recalled how the government intervened when he authored a pessimistic economic commentary before the bailout.

The Department of Finance called his boss, Frances Ruane, and said it was uncomfortable with his analysis. She called Barrett in and asked if he could stand over it. “I said ‘yes’. She said ‘fine’. That was the end of the story . . . I was being told that ‘as long as you can stand over what you’re saying, that’s okay’.”

One of the most high-profiles clashes between the government and the ESRI came two years ago when the institute published a highly critical report of then minister for the environment John Gormley’s incineration policies. The research paper – commissioned by Dublin City Council – supported the council’s case for the construction of the Poolbeg incinerator.

Gormley lambasted the report as deficient, misleading and not based on the facts. The ESRI later admitted it had made an error, but insisted it did not change the substance of its findings.

The report’s lead author, Prof Paul Gorecki, said at the time it was inevitable the institute’s conclusions would occasionally conflict with government policy.

The governance of the institute has attracted negative comment, with some critics insisting it has leaned too far to the right, adopting a neoliberal outlook.

Its council is chaired by former banker Laurence Crowley and other members include Central Bank governor Patrick Honohan, representatives of the Department of Finance and other Government agencies, and Frances Ruane herself.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions leader David Begg resigned from the governing council a few years ago, apparently dismayed it was nudging too far to the right. He declined to comment yesterday.

The institute says appointments to the council are filled by nominations made by its 300 subscribing companies and individual members.

Overall, the ESRI maintains that independence is its hallmark: “Sometimes funders are not happy with what emerges from the research – routinely findings crop up that run contrary to what they would like to find,” its website states. “However, the ESRI’s mandate is to publish what it finds and that is what it does and this is understood by those who fund the research.”