Picking up where I left off last week, I want to explore what we know about the “objective” process by which an “independent” think tank like the Fraser Institute goes about choosing a topic to write a research paper about. As economists, they will doubtless nod in approval when I give you the basic maxim of that profession: there is no such thing as a free lunch. And in the research profession, there is no such thing as a free paper. So, every time the Fraser Institute publicizes one of their new studies, the question you should ask yourself is: who paid for this study, and should that affect how I read it?
Sometimes the Institute acknowledges its funding sources: for instance, the Institute openly acknowledges that its annual mining industry survey is paid for by a trade group, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. Other times, it is not apparent that any dedicated funding was provided for the project to go forward, even though I am absolutely certain that it was. Unattributed studies are not uncommon, and I caught the C.D. Howe Institute carrying water for the private trash lobby in just this fashion last year.
What you might be interested to learn is who else shares these ideas. Before getting to that, though, I want to back up a little and review what we do know about how the Fraser Institute conducts research. As the Institute proudly declares, it is “independent,” and “non-partisan,” and takes no government money (though it it happy to issue tax receipts to that its donors can collect government money). Its researchers are top-notch, and their work is vetted, when necessary, by a review board. Until I began writing about the board earlier this year, several of its supposed members were actually dead. They’ve since clarified that little problem.
A few years ago now, the American tobacco companies released a massive archive of documents as part of their big court settlement over the fact that they know their products are designed to be both addictive and lethal. One of the unexpected discoveries in that archive was a series of letters between the Fraser Institute and major tobacco companies. Some letters detailed a series of studies the Institute offered to undertake arguing that smoking risks were exaggerated, regulation was too heavy, and that secondhand smoke in particular might not be harmful after all. The tobacco companies were given a list of three proposed projects, each costed to around $40-50,000, and told to select any or all of them as they wished.
In one of the letters, chief fundraiser Sherry Stein explained the principle: the Fraser Institute has
a flexible agenda that allows us to only progress with projects once we have secured the necessary funding… Any funding that we receive from British American Tobacco that is designated for specific projects will allow us to move forward on those specific projects sooner.
As it happens, the Fraser Institute still opposes various forms of tobacco regulation (on the grounds that it promotes illegal smuggling), and they’ve been given funding from the Imperial Tobacco Canada Foundation in recent years, and the tobacco companies have the same position on the smuggling-regulation connection. You can connect the dots however you want on that one.
But the real question that was always bouncing around in my head was: is this an isolated case, or is this a standard procedure at the Institute? There’s no doubt in my mind that people who donate to the Fraser Institute have a pretty good idea what sort of research they’re funding. But how direct is the link, really? Thanks to research by Sixth Estate, I can now suggest that the tobacco case is probably more typical than atypical.
Let’s take two cases in point, because I think I can back them up: a study of Chinese-Canadian commerce (which the Institute unsurprisingly says is good), and a study of the cost of official bilingualism (which they equally unsurprisingly think is bad). Interestingly, the year before the trade study was printed, this notice appeared on the website of the Canada China Business Council, a trade lobby promotion outfit:
CCBC strongly feels that the best way to get our point across is to deliver an unbiased message from a respected research institution. The Fraser Institute has proposed, and CCBC has agreed to support, such a study by facilitating funding… CCBC intends to use the research results as an important part of our communication efforts…
The project, which costs $90,000, needs to be fully funded in order to proceed.
The CCBC site even posted the detailed project proposal, but unfortunately it’s been taken down and I have no way to get at it. Interestingly, although the notice stressed that the Fraser Institute would do the research “independently,” the Council seemed perfectly confident that the results would be “useful” in promoting its activity. And as it happens, the Fraser Institute’s study decided that “the way ahead for relations between Canada and China” was to “expand and diversify trade.”
There is similar evidence regarding the language study. In 2007, Canadians for Language Fairness published a notice which included the following statement, ostensibly from the Institute:
The following project proposal outlines three potential projects to be undertaken and completed by the Fraser Institute and scholars associated with it. Each of the proposals is separate and distinct from the others, although the three could be undertaken in sequence to create a sizeable and important body of research on this topic in Canada.
1.) Costs of Federal Bilingualism in Canada
2.) Costs of Provincial and Local Government Bilingualism in Canada
3.) Optimal Language Policy for Canada
The Fraser Institute is seeking financial support for this work, as each of these studies would cost approximately $90,000, and they will not go ahead until they are fully funded.
This was published in Dialogue. Amusingly, in the next issue, a cranky contrarian took issue with the Fraser Institute project:
WARNING TO ALL POTENTIAL DONORS!… The Fraser Institute may, or may not, especially in this case involving as to how the money is to be handled, be a ‘prestigious organization’!
3 x $90,000 is $270,000. The mosey, as collected, is to be passed to the FI until such time as it has accumulated the required 3 x $90,000! Very nice for the FI! “Should the study not be done, we will happily send back your contribution,” says Mark Mullins, Executive Director of FI!
I’m obviously not in a position to confirm any of this. The wirter in question, “Jim Allan” of Toronto, may or may not have any clue what he’s talking about.
In the meantime, though, I think we can safely say that this suggests some insights into how Fraser Institute fundraising works. And as I’ve said before, if the Fraser Institute proposes a study and you pony up the cash, you can have a pretty good idea what sort of research an Institute like that is going to produce. And they, in turn, can’t help but realize what sort of research you would benefit most from. There doesn’t need to be donors sitting on the review board for there to be a conflict of interest here. And the best way to escape a conflict of interest is to always state up front, in every report, whether funding was solicited for the project in question, and if so, how much and from whom.Tweet