6 Aug 2013

At the heart of the issue is that different social research providers have different notions of independence. Think tanks, commercial research agencies and academics all have a role to play in the provision of social research. However, as a result of their structure, funding relationships or ideology, all define independence differently. None of these three perspectives on independence are necessarily better than the other, and all have advantages and disadvantages for people seeking to engage or use social research.

At the same time, there may be benefit from encouraging a broader discussion and more openness in relation to the concept of independence so that research buyers, and the research sector as a whole, can continue to provide high quality, effective and pragmatic research.

This article looks at think tanks, academic institutions and commercial research agencies to examine the link between organisational structure and different forms of independence.

The number of think tanks in Australia is growing: in the last ten years, eight new think tanks have been established. Once the domain of interest groups and business, there are now more government-funded think tanks in Australia than privately-funded ones. A brief (and no doubt incomplete) audit of 20 think tanks in Australia found that there are nine private think tanks and 11 government-funded think tanks; the latter were either established by government directly or are funded through commissioned research or government grants. At least five of these think tanks are also supported by universities.’

A think tank (also called a policy institute) is an organisation, institute, corporation, or group that conducts research and engages in advocacy in public policy. Think tanks have an impact on social policy and are playing an increasingly important role in the sector. Many seek to influence government policy indirectly by using the media to sway public opinion, though some do engage directly with politicians and government officials.

The notion of independence appears to mean different things to different think tanks. Privately funded think tanks can claim to be independent because they do not receive any government funding.

Framing independence simply by looking at whether a think tank receives government funding is not particularly useful because privately-funded think tanks are not necessarily politically neutral.

Think tanks established by government and receiving significant government funding also view themselves as independent, but in this case independence means not being aligned with a particular ideology.

Framing independence simply by looking at whether a think tank receives government funding is not particularly useful because privately-funded think tanks are not necessarily politically neutral. Some are aligned with political parties or overtly share their ideologies. Being privately-funded is also no guarantee of neutrality or independence, as most think tanks need to take into account the interests of their funders.

Most think tanks have a degree of independence in what they choose to research and how they conduct their research. They can also choose to specialise in a particular research area rather than doing the broader and more generalist research undertaken by consultants. In being free to develop their own special focus, researchers in think tanks can become recognised as experts in their field and are often asked to comment on particular issues in the media. This exposure enables researchers in think tanks to influence public opinion and shape public policy indirectly.

Independence in~ think tank revolves around freedom to review and critique government or industry policy without the constraints of funded client relationships. However, this freedom is not without constraint. Researchers in think tanks still need to meet the interests of their donors and attract media attention when they release a research paper, which can influence how they select topics and draw conclusions.

Independence is a cornerstone of scholarly endeavour and most (if not all) Australian universities uphold the right to intellectual freedom in their enterprise agreements with staff.

Independence is a cornerstone of scholarly endeavour and most (if not all) Australian universities uphold the right to intellectual freedom in their enterprise agreements with staff. 2 Academics have more freedom to pursue their own research interests than researchers in think tanks or consultancy firms. They also have the freedom to be critical of government policy and to express particular ideologies, as the government is not their client. However, a consequence of this freedom is that there is the potential for academic social research to have less practical application for policy-makers than research conducted by commercial agencies or think tanks. Academics tend to specialise in a particular area of research.

The positives of this specialisation means they can become experts in a particular area. The negatives are that sometimes their field of vision can be too narrow to link in with broader policy issues. Some academics focus on the complexity of social issues and the provisional nature of research findings, rather than drawing conclusions with the intention of influencing policy3 Despite having more freedom to pursue their own research interests, the independence of academics is still constrained by the requirements of university management and academia. Academics are measured by how many articles they publish in peer-reviewed professional publications.

The incentives and reward structures of academia encourage academic researchers to partition up their research findings in order to increase their output and to secure more funding for their research 4 This presents challenges for academics wishing to work closely with government on lengthy applied research projects. At the same time, universities in Australia are becoming more business-like and undertaking more commissioned research.

Some, as discussed above, are even establishing their own think tanks or providing substantial funding towards them.

Unlike researchers in think tanks, who tend to try and influence public policy indirectly, consultants' research directly influences public policy because that is what they are getting paid to do.

Consultants operate independently by not aligning themselves with any political party or ideology. Government contracts are important to business and advice given needs to be able to withstand a change of government and a new political party, especially as evaluation projects can span several years. Of course consultants have their own political views, but they need to be careful not to let their personal views cloud the way they represent research findings. Advice provided is based on the evidence presented in research. Unlike researchers in think tanks, who tend to try and influence public policy indirectly, consultants’ research directly influences public policy because that is what they are getting paid to do. The research undertaken by consultants tends to be less theoretical and more applied than research carried out by academics.

However, consultants’ independence can be constrained by their client relationships. The client relationship with government can have potential implications for consultants and requires careful management. The scope and type of methodology used to conduct research may be influenced by how much money clients are prepared to pay. As consultants are reliant on their clients for business they can experience a degree of pressure from clients in how they frame their research findings. Consultants are therefore careful to ensure the integrity of their research by complying with recognised professional standards, such as IS020252, the international quality standard for market and social research.

In summary, those in different fields of social policy research frame their independence in different ways. Researchers from think tanks and academics have more freedom in the type of research they undertake compared with consultants, and as a result tend to be specialists in a particular research area. This specialisation can be useful for policy-makers looking for experts in one particular field, but less useful when seeking a more broad approach. How these different sectors articulate their independence has potential implications on how useful their research findings will be for government policy-makers. In seeking to ensure that research buyers are able to make informed choices, it may be beneficial to establish more free and frank discussion on what independence means for different fields of research.

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