Friday, 31 October 2014


The NBR last week featured New Zealand's economic research outfits. We're a pretty diverse group. The New Zealand Initiative conforms most closely to the classic think-tank model, albeit one funded by member subscriptions, while others, both for-profit and not-for-profit, do a mix of commissioned work and a bit of public interest work. The NBR's Jaime Ball writes:
If the idiom is true that “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” could it be that most economic research institutes in New Zealand are leading the rest of us on a merry dance?
The lion’s share of research stems from work commissioned, or paid for, by such persuasive pipers: the public and private sector client.
His description of the different players seemed about right, though he mostly lets the different organisations tell their own stories.

Oliver punted Jaime over to me on the question of whether there are problems in commissioned numbers in New Zealand public policy debate. I pointed him to the examples of the old PWC report on adult and continuing education, where they got a big number on the social benefits of adult and continuing education by assuming that taking a night course in cooking halves your risk of committing any crime. I also pointed to BERL's work on the social cost of alcohol.

Ball's article today hit that topic.
“I’ve seen a few really shonky kind of studies,” New Zealand Institute Initiative’s head of research Dr Eric Crampton says of his 11 years in New Zealand. [EC's edit]
“I think the main problem that we have is in defining who the ultimate consumer of these numbers is.
“So the commissioning agency in some case might not want to know the real number. They might just want to have a number that can show up on the headlines for a few days and put it into the public debate around the time some policy is being decided upon.”
Dr Crampton says this country has got a problem in that it has fairly thin markets.
“There isn’t that many people who will go in and take a look at how these things are constructed and offer a critique of them. We also have a problem where in small markets people can be a little bit reluctant to critique other people’s numbers, because there would be turnabout.”
The article's headline, "When Research Goes Wrong: Handbags Fly Five Years Later" doesn't give quite the right impression. I was asked about whether there are problems with commissioned figures; I pointed to some, and not just BERL's. All fun though.

Nana rehashed his standard defense of the report.

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