How Canada’s “experts” are eschewing their commitment to evidence-based research and policy.
Ever wonder who all those “experts” quoted in the news are?
They, and the organizations or “think tanks” they work for, make up the knowledge-production industry in Canada. They influence our beliefs and help frame our understanding of our country – how it is, or should be, governed. The most sophisticated among them are savvy in their outreach activities and regularly make headlines in newspapers and talk shows. Journalists use them regularly as the centrepiece for “news” articles, and rarely question their evidence base. Furthermore, politicians use them to justify their positions.
But who are these “experts,” and what do we understand about what they do?
Proliferation of ideologically right-wing voices
Looking at a snapshot of currently operational Canadian think tanks (Figure 1), the prominence of right-wing voices immediately pops out.
The thought marketplace is dominated by the Conference Board of Canada whose operating budget is over six times that of the second-largest player, The Fraser Institute, and at least 35 times larger than the budgets of any of the progressive organizations. The Conference Board is non-partisan, but is generally considered to be centre-right by most experts in the field. Indeed, many experts and academics choose not to include it as a think tank at all, since its research is largely funded by businesses that outsource policy research and recommendations, thus making it more of a business policy planning tool for its customers.
There has been a noticeable increase in both the volume and resource capacity of right-wing organizations in recent years. Cumulatively, right-wing research organizations have a budget that is almost three times that of more progressive organizations. The picture is further skewed when one considers that, in recent years, governments have constrained funding for progressive or left-leaning research organizations, with notable closures at Canadian Policy Research Networks and the Canadian Labour and Business Centre.
The current federal government, not unlike Conservative governments in the past, is squeezing the budgets for external knowledge-production centres. We’ve seen this cycle before during the Mulroney years and a reversal back to sponsored research under former prime minister Jean Chrétien.
Is the current shift in the funding of external knowledge-production centres a matter of concern?
Advocacy orientation and spin as facts
Think tanks are now preoccupied with political advocacy and promoting the views of their stakeholders and namesakes. Policy expert Donald Abelson notes that Canada’s right-wing think tanks, in particular, are following the lead of their U.S. counterparts by engaging more in political advocacy than in strict policy research. Whatever the inception point, it is clear they are increasingly partisan and disinterested in scientific or empirical accuracy, and that they ultimately have a mission to convert voters to their particular point of view. To be fair, most have been quite transparent about this. The Fraser Institute, for instance, has stated that its purpose is “to change the climate of belief, to change what people believe.”
All of this would be fine if there were equal opportunity for access to the airwaves – for debate about the issues – and if someone, somewhere, were looking out for the long-term interests of the country. The 1990s, however, saw a significant privatization of government research capacity under then-prime-minister Brian Mulroney. Internal government research units were cut and knowledge-production increasingly relied on external organizations.
To help fill this gap, foundations formed organizations like Canadian Policy Research Networks, which rely on government funding to maintain their research remits. Cuts, like those that the federal government implemented in 2006, have resulted in the closing of such organizations, and have left a dearth of long-term good-governance thinking for the nation.
The crop of think tanks that are popping up in their absence do not have the same commitment to analysis and evidence-based policy. Their purpose is to convince us of what we believe (or what they want us to believe), not to better inform our knowledge. At the moment, a large imbalance in resources is being applied to more conservative organizations, convincing us that we should be right wing.
The need for alternative voices
So where does that leave us?
Canada faces serious issues in the coming years with baby boomers retiring and the huge fiscal burden it will put on our public services. We need to innovate economically and transform the way we deliver public services. This will require longer-term thinking than the horizon of the next election. Think tanks, experts, and research organizations across all spectrums in the knowledge-production industry – those who tell us what the “facts” are – need to take a more responsible approach. Respect needs to be given to evidence, and knowledge needs to be the foundation of decision-making. Research needs to go beyond ideological beliefs about a particular size of government.
As a result of our new research institutions’ lack of commitment to evidence-based analysis, our national conversation is wanting. We need more credible, alternative voices at the table so that we can have honest discussion and debate.
The Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto, a research organization that works in collaboration with academics, former public servants, the private sector, and the Government of Ontario, is one such welcome step in the right direction. Many more are needed.