Trusting which experts? Think tanks and politically-neutral knowledge

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By Dr Scott Taylor, Reader in Leadership & Organization Studies, Department of Management, and Dr Amon Barros, Assistant Professor, FGV Sao Paulo School of Business Administration

political debate is now framed by a mistrust of ‘experts’ who claim specific knowledge and authority, as well as their research.

Long-established London-based think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), made the news in an unwelcome way recently when its director was recorded by journalists offering access to confidential political information, including information on British politicians, in exchange for financial support. He also described how potential research funders could shape the content of final research reports, and that research conclusions would always support free trade principles and corporate interests.

Is this really surprising? Or is it just surprising that the IEA’s director was caught on tape making such promises?

At the very least, this story prompts some pressing questions about influential think tanks. Think tanks are not new entrants to the political scene and have been developing since the early twentieth century. However, from the 1970s onward the number of think tanks has increased steadily and they are taken as serious actors in political and economic debate, especially for research and policy advice on economic issues. They’re taken for granted, respected, and even trusted.

Part of this success stems from a willingness to work with politicians or business leaders to develop research projects that contribute to forming an opinion on sensitive issues. They provide clear, concise, and practical recommendations to pressing social or economic controversies. The best think tanks hire professional researchers and generate funding for readable and robust research, which should use established methods to collect data and reliable analytical tools to interpret it. In sum, a lot of think tank research is taken very seriously, and for good reason – it’s informed and timely.

Yet, political debate is now framed by a mistrust of ‘experts’ who claim specific knowledge and authority, as well as their research. Current British minister of state and prominent Vote Leave campaigner Michael Gove famously suggested on Sky News during the Brexit referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, especially economists. This became one of the most repeated soundbites of 2016, symbolising the loss of trust in people in positions of power, especially (ironically) politicians.

However, some experts and their research are still trusted. Reports from think tanks like the IEA are frequently cited by politicians in debate, and news reports often include a representative from a think tank to provide clear soundbites on complex issues. Think tanks seem to be exempt from the scepticism of experts – how did that happen?

We’re conducting research on think tanks in Brazil and the UK, which starts from the basis that think tanks are knowledge translators designed to guide political debate in a specific ideological direction. This is different to corporate lobbying or corporate political action – corporations seek political influence mainly for instrumental economic reasons, rather than ‘pure’ political reasons. Perhaps the most important question centres on research funding and its effects. As The Economist noted:

Unlike many other institutions designed to promote free inquiry, such as universities or some publications, think-tanks do not enjoy large endowments, researcher tenure, or subscription revenue to insulate thinkers from paymasters. (The Economist, September 9 2017, p35)

Of course, all research has a ‘paymaster’ – at universities, this is usually a state research council or an independent charity. Neither of these institutions promote a particular political position and would not support any research that explicitly stated a political stance. That’s an implicit part of the professional code, even if it’s not contractual or written into research proposals. The IEA’s director has broken a series of norms with his promises in relation to research and to how we expect public debate to function.

But he has done one good thing – he’s made clear that research should always be questioned on its funding base, and the relationship between funder and research provider. There are two crucial questions to ask about research outcomes: Who is paying? Who benefits?

Medical researchers have experience of this, as do some in business schools, and there are clear professional norms in place. Academic researchers are always prompted to disclose direct links to those who benefit from their work. Media reporting of research findings and proposals could be much clearer on a research project’s background. If we can accept that all knowledge and expertise can be political and politicised, public debate will be much better informed.

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