Independence, transparency key to research work of ESRI

Thu, Jan 12, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:The ESRI is funded by yet independent of government, precisely following its mandate, writes FRANCES RUANE

THE ECONOMIC and Social Research Institute has been subject to considerable comment in recent days. Specifically, questions have been raised about the independence of its research, the transparency of research funding and the freedom of its researchers to participate in public debate.

It seems, therefore, to be an opportune moment to set out exactly how the institute operates.

From its foundation in 1960, the institute’s role has been to provide a strong, independent source of research evidence for policy and civil society in Ireland. That it would be funded by government and yet independent of government was precisely the mandate it was given.

This independence means that researchers have no fear of publishing research findings that do not provide support for government policy. Great care was taken to protect the institute’s independence in setting up and revising its governance structures over the years. Independence, objectivity and excellence remain core values of the institute.

How is independence maintained when so much institute research is funded directly by government departments and agencies?

Typically, following a tendering process or under a joint-programme agreement, funders come with a set of questions or issues to be examined. Institute researchers investigate these, drawing on high-quality methods and relevant data. As long as the research meets the quality standard, the institute upholds its right to publish. Funders come to the institute for research precisely because they value high-quality work and are aware of its independence as expressed through its policy on publication.

Are funders always happy with what emerges from the research?

Not always – routinely, findings crop up that run contrary to what the funder would like. For example, results sometimes raise questions about the effectiveness of a particular policy intervention.

The institute’s mandate is to publish what it finds and that is what it does. This is understood by those who fund the research.

Are there issues that the institute’s researchers would like to explore but cannot because of funding limitations?

Yes there are. Departments and agencies differ in the extent to which they are able and willing to fund independent research on specific issues. Shortage of funding to support research is, of course, common to researchers in many fields, not just in economic and social policy.

Research on issues for which specific project-related funding cannot be found can also compete for a share of the institute’s core resources and for research funds from outside bodies.

The wide acceptance of the institute’s independence and objectivity stems from the quality of its work. This quality requires that papers meet objective academic standards through peer review, which involves the papers being examined and critiqued by other experts.

If the paper does not meet these standards, it is not published until it has been revised, re-examined and passed fit. Notwithstanding inputs from reviewers and other colleagues, the content of each paper remains the responsibility of the individual researcher(s); this is stated clearly on each publication.

In what way is the institute’s approach to research different, if at all, from that in Irish universities?

Because of its specific policy research role, researchers concentrate on providing research evidence that is directly useful to Irish society and on making sure the evidence is presented to policy- makers and the wider public.

Both the institute’s and university researchers write papers for academic journals which operate their own peer review processes. The institute’s researchers have the privilege of academic freedom in their research and in placing their results into the public domain.

However, their privileged access to policymakers and data carries with it a responsibility to provide the best and most objective possible evidence to inform policy. Where the evidence suggests that policy needs to change, the role of the researcher includes explaining the results to policymakers and (through the media) to the wider public in a professional and an impartial manner.

The institute’s researchers are free to participate in public debate and have an excellent record in doing so. The culture, going back five decades, is that researchers generally concentrate on their own areas of specialisation, providing their expert input to public discussion.

Their focus is usually on evidence from research and what it implies for policy rather than on their personal opinions. That said, many researchers regularly engage in public discussions and express opinions.

The institute has adopted best practice policies in relation to its governance. A suggestion reported in the media that xenophobia, racism and nepotism are present is totally without foundation and has been strongly refuted.

Independence is the hallmark of the institute’s work. Researchers work closely with commissioning bodies during the research process but retain the independence and freedom to publish, even where the results may prove difficult for such commissioning bodies.

Prof Frances Ruane is director of the Economic and Social Research Institute

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