Friday, September 08, 2006

University Research, Think Tanks, and the Press

By Richard Vedder

I am, roughly speaking, in a foul mood today. In earlier times, perhaps I would challenge someone to a duel, but that is inadvisable today on a lot of grounds, not the least of which is my ineptitude with guns and swords. So I hope the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.

I think some of the best research in the social sciences and humanities today goes on outside of universities, particularly at think tanks. These institutions, largely a creation of the last 30 years, vary enormously in quality, but the best of them say a lot of very serious things. The Brookings Institution and the American Enteprise Institute (AEI) in Washington are two excellent examples. I am honored to be a Visiting Scholar at AEI, where I think the quality of scholarship is on average higher than at most if not all colleges and universities with which I have been affiliated with over the years. Indeed, when universities justify low teaching loads to permit institutional research, I often wonder if, dollar for dollar, they begin to provide the quality or quantity of research output that the think tanks do.

Yet many persons smear the think tanks, claiming that they are not objective, since they take money from --gasp -- corporations. Today, my integrity was indirectly maligned in the New York Times, a once great newspaper that is declining in quality, objectivity and, thank God, influence, with the passage of time. It seems I am writing a book (with Wendell Cox) for AEI. It seems I have some nice things to say about the company, such as the fact that its "everyday low prices" have provided great benefits to lower income Americans. But the Times breathlessly points out this morning something that I did not know, namely that AEI took over $100,000 in donations from foundations of the Walton family (not even the Wal-Mart company) over a three year period, which, if true, amounts to a small fraction of one percent of total AEI spending. Therefore, it is intimated (although not explcitly said) that anything I (or others) say in defense of Wal-Mart is highly suspect (implicitly assuming I have no sense of integrity or ethics). Nothing was said about the fact that, aside from not knowing about the contributions, I had absolutely no direct personal contact with Wal-Mart, and the limited contact I did have was to request some data (a request which was denied, by the way). No mention was made of the fact that AEI absolutely made no attempt to modifiy my assessment of Wal-Mart, a point made abundantly clear to the reporter.

By contrast, implicitly we are led to believe by media outlets like the Times that the billions of dollars that the federal government gives to universities has no adverse influence whatsoever on the nature or content of the research being performed. Think tank research is bad because it is funded mainly from the greedy and somewhat evil private sector, while university research is mostly good since it is funded mostly by the saintly, just and good governments that we all love.

It is this trashy, highly subjective form of presentation of the "news" that in my judgment has contributed to the demise of the Times as the nation's pre-eminent news source. Unfortunately, a lot of similar type "research" is going on in the academy, funded in part by taxpayers or private donors thinking they are contributing to other purposes. This is a matter deserving closer scrutiny by all interested in free, objective scholarly inquiry. I do not want to stifle free speech; au contraire, I want to make transparent how funding of universities for research comes in ways and forms not known even to those paying the bills.

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