What role should research organisations play today in Ireland?

Posted on May 26, 2016 by Tom Healy

Tom Healy, Director NERI
Tom Healy, Director NERI

On this island we are blessed with an abundance of research organisations and research knowledge coupled with unprecedented access to data sources that we could only have dreamt of a generation ago. Investment in official statistical infrastructure (much of which was prompted by statistical reporting requirements in the European Union) has helped open up new sources of information crossing different countries, time periods and topics of research interest. We are awash with data possibilities from the details of public attitudes across to data on sectoral productivity with literacy, obesity and housing scattered along the way!  [This week’s Blog is based on a talk entitled ‘Introducing other perspectives into the economic and health related research landscape’ which I gave last week at the all-island Institute of Public Health (IPH) in Ireland conference held in Dublin]

Yet, if someone asks a simple question like ‘Do smaller classes lead to better learning outcomes?’ or ‘How effective will a sugar tax be in improving public health?’ the answer, invariably, is along the lines that it is a complicated matter and we do not necessarily have all the necessary data to test claims or control for relevant conditioning factors.  There simply is never enough data and whatever data we have enables us to throw light on simple questions and not so simple questions but the concluding section of a research paper is usually tentative, conditional and suggestive of yet more research. And this is how those of us in the ‘research industry’ make a livelihood! 

Research – as the word indicates – means searching and searching again for answers. Even if answers emerge we must ask how these answers influence and determine actions whether at individual, community or governmental level. Do policy makers and other actors really want to know the answer if it does not fit the current fashions and political requirements? What if research raises too many questions that do not have answers? Unfortunately, research is too often used to advance a particular purpose or agenda and it is not unknown that important works of research are shelved, ignored or undermined because it seems to point in uncomfortable directions.

Yet, research can never be entirely separate from the very real ideological and social interests of those ‘doing’ research and interpreting it. We live in a world of conflict – conflicts of ideas, economic interests and ideologies not to mention personal ambitions and rivalries.  In short, research is never context-free. Neither is, I would suggest, neutral – at least not entirely. This is especially so in the area of social analysis and policy related research.  The very questions we choose to ask or on which to conduct research reflects our interests, our values and our point of view - not only our point of view and values but those who fund us.

When the economic crisis struck Europe in full force in 2009 many institutes of economic research provided valuable insight in relation to alternative policy responses in the context of fiscal austerity and chaos in the banking sector. Yet, it is noticeable how the scope of available questions and hypotheses was narrowly defined. Given A Governments can do X or Y was a feature of much analyses in the wake of the crash. Yet, few bodies explored the options for doing B instead of assuming that A was entirely given or immutable. A reluctance to explore options was often related to a set of assumptions about what was available or feasible politically or institutionally. To put it another way, Governments and ‘policy makers’ in positions of influencing and funding research were, in most cases, simply not interested in any alternative direction of policy; it was a case of There Is No Alternative. I hasten to add that the research undertaken was not at all necessarily biased or questionable from a methodological point of view. Rather, the permissible or researchable list of questions and hypotheses was predetermined by the realpolitik of the post-2008 crash in Europe.

If the Government of any country choses to fund research as it does through grants to institutions of higher education or through specially commissioned research projects undertaken by researchers it may chose to stand back and take no role in shaping the methodology and conclusions of independently appointed researchers. However, those carrying out research were chosen to do it on the basis of competence and proven track record. In this case, ‘competence’ is inclusive of broad sympathy with the overall goal and mission of the sponsors. Take the Transatlantic, Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Over a year ago the Irish Government commissioned research by the Copenhagen Economics consultancy to undertake an in-depth analysis of the economic impact of TTIP on the Irish economy as well as specific sectors. The overwhelming conclusion of the research (TTIP Impact in Ireland), published in February 2015 (and which I have studied and wrote on previously in a Monday Blog here) is that TTIP would be good for Irish GDP, employment, investment, wages and living standards. Any possible ‘losers’ (for example in the beef sector) would be more than compensated for by gains in other areas and sectors in such manner that everyone would be better off after at least after an initial adjustment. The theoretical model used in this study was the Computational General Equilibrium model (CGE). A simple way of summarising the significance of this model compared to alternative models is captured on page 72 of the report:

Because the simulations assumed full employment in equilibrium, the employment changes in Irish and non-Irish firms should add up to zero (before rounding). Put differently, this assumption means that there is not a change in the overall employment of, say, low-skill workers, just a change in the nationality of their employer.

The report goes on to say (page 73):

It is important to remember that these predictions are based on the assumptions of the exercise.

Now, I am not necessarily criticising the research or its conclusions. I am merely pointing to the connection between interests, values and assumptions. Just suppose – for  a moment – that the Irish Government was less than enthusiastic about TTIP it might have sought a research project using the General Policy Model favoured by United Nations agencies such as UNCTAD. Research by Jeronim Capaldo of Tufts University in the USA came to very different conclusions to those found in the Copenhagen study mentioned above.  Capaldo (The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: European Disintegration, Unemployment and Instability ) found that TTIP was likely to lead to:

-             losses in terms of net exports and GDP after a decade, compared to the baseline “no-TTIP” scenario with the largest losses in Northern Europe.

-             A fall in labour income as well as in its share of national income.

-             job losses in the order of approximately 600,000 jobs across the EU.

-             a loss of government revenue.

-             higher financial instability and accumulation of imbalances associated with higher asset prices.

Who is right; who is wrong?  It all depends on what models you use and technical assumptions you make. Much of economic research relating to the prediction of future events is of this genre. Shift some vital assumptions or recast the theoretical basis on which a model is built and you can get dramatically different results. We can see similar processes at work in the case of the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom although the economic evidence for leaving is much less convincing than for remaining it must be pointed out.

A sense of proportion, realism and, dare I say, humility is needed when it comes to research in what has been described as the ‘social sciences’. As social researchers we do well to use scientific methods of measurement, repetition and prediction but it would be a travesty of the truth and the very idea of science in particular to claim that we can predict human behaviour and social outcomes with anything remotely resembling the accuracy of a laboratory test involving chemicals.

Where does this leave health related research? Much work has been done by organisations such as the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. Important contributions by way of detailed analysis have been made by IPHI in both parts of this island. It emphasises values of research excellence, respect, involvement and principled action. From its website under principle action the IPHI is committed to

-             speaking up for what we believe in, internally and externally;

-             creating impact and effecting social change;

-             checking with colleagues before taking actions which may have significant implications for the Institute;

-             being committed to seeing things through, even when the going gets tough.

The spirit of these principled actions are also reflected in the Guiding Principles for Members of the Irish Economic Association (of which NERI is a member).  The way in which research is conducted collaboratively within and without is a hallmark of professionalism.  Nobody and no one research body has a monopoly of wisdom or expertise.

In the case of the NERI we are relatively new. Founded, as we are, by the Trade Union movement the focus of our research reflects the values and interests of those who support us. Yet, there are times when trade unions may not be comfortable with all that we say and publish. This is natural. In Ireland we might have a tendency in the direction of a cosy consensus or a shared way of thinking. The role of good, honest evidence-based and values-underpinned research is vital in challenging assumptions and pointing a progressive way forward that helps people. Researchers need, also, to be open to criticism and review as we do through a process of academic peer reviewed research and collegial feedback before, during and after publication. Our work is only beginning. We are happy to share the results of our research with others and draw on the research of others.


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