Sunday 26 December 2010

Pecuniary Interest

If all goes well with the University's payroll system, I will have a pecuniary interest to declare as of 30 December. A consortium of Australasian alcohol folks have engaged Matt Burgess and me to do some work on the social costs of alcohol. In particular, we've been asked to evaluate the methods used in recent work in Australia by Collins and Lapsley and to compare them with standard mainstream economic methods. In short: work similar to that which we did, unpaid, in examining the BERL report last year. We did not solicit this work. But when we were approached, it sounded interesting. Especially since rather a few folks dismissed our earlier entirely unfunded work as having been industry paid.

Because I worry a lot about problems of one-sided skepticism, I wanted to ensure not only that any work I did would be entirely independent but also that it could be seen to be so. Consequently, this work is being undertaken as part of a consulting contract administered by the University of Canterbury, approved of by the powers that be here at the University. I drafted all of the provisions regarding academic freedom in the contract; they were happy with it. The contract guarantees our full academic independence, maintains our ownership of the intellectual property produced, guarantees our ability to publish the work as we like, and reserves to us the right to comment publicly on the work without restriction. I can't imagine what else we could have added to the contract to guarantee academic freedom. An honest application of standard economic method is what's most valuable to all parties concerned.

Let the howls of "oh, but they're paid by industry" begin. The most reasonable form of such critique would be that the folks in the alcohol industry liked the kind of work we did last year and wanted more of it, and take this as a negative endorsement of anything I do in the area. I could similarly be critiqued for being associated with the Mont Pelerin Society by folks who'd take that negatively. The least reasonable form of critique is that the fact of payment influenced our work. The only influence it's had is that I'm working on this instead of on something else, and that I can afford to hire a few research assistants to help with the background literature review (there are lots of other alcohol social cost studies out there).

If you want to worry about funding, please avoid one-sided skepticism. I've made assertions above, and you might think I'm lying. But do consider that the social cost studies showing big numbers on the costs of alcohol - those didn't get produced for free. They tended to be funded by Ministries of Health. And those contracts, from what I've heard, have more strings on them than mine does when it comes to academic freedom.


  1. That sounds like a really fair contract. I guess that the only thing that I would add to improve openness would be to make public any data and code used to analyze it (once your paper has been accepted for publication). Good luck with your consulting job!

  2. You could take the opportunity to further your appearance of objectivity by quitting smoking while conducting the study. :)

  3. @Luis: The only data is notes on prior studies - it's a critique of the method used, rather than a re-estimation. When we did do such a re-estimation last year on a NZ study, we put up all the excel sheets. Were we to do such a thing again, we'd put it all up again.

    @Kimble: I don't smoke! But nobody's coming anywhere near close to paying me enough to quit having the daily beer....