Friday 6 December 2013

Alcohol work

Until now, the only bit of paid work I've done on alcohol-related matters was an analysis of the Collins & Lapsley figures on the social costs of alcohol for NABIC. That was handled as a consultancy contract through the University's Research and Innovation office.

I've been interested in alcohol policy issues for rather a while. Since moving to New Zealand, I'd loved the kind of drinking and brewing environment that's been enabled by our regulatory and tax structures. On landing here, we joined the University Wine Club, which maintained an excellent cellar and introduced us to all that New Zealand had to offer. Then we started discovering New Zealand craft beers at the University of Canterbury Staff Club. Charles, the bartender, stocks great beers and runs beer tastings, often hosted by Ralph from Three Boys' or Richard from Dux de Luxe. New Zealand's the kind of place where a home brewer can gauge market demand for his product at farmers' markets, then go on to open a brewpub. So long as you pay your excise if you're selling product commercially, the government doesn't much get in the way.

And so I've taken it as my bit of the 'critic and conscience' duties at Uni to keep an eye on regulatory and tax policy in the area. It bothers me when basic statistics are misrepresented to purport that there's some kind of drinking crisis going on; it bothers me more when economic method is abused in support of regulatory policies more likely to do harm than good.

For the next three years, and potentially longer, I will be able to devote a bit more of my time to this area. The Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand has entered into a three-year agreement with the University to free up a bit of my time that I might spend it on alcohol-related research and policy work that interests me.

The contract between the Brewers and the University maintains pretty strict academic freedom. While I'll be having some chats with them about which projects we both might find interesting, I maintain IP rights over everything I do and so can blog or publish as I like. The three year contract is subject to renewal at the end of the second year, so if I wind up doing a bunch of work they don't like, well, I'll have another year to keep at it before the contract winds up. And since everything between the University and the Brewers, my job doesn't depend on keeping anybody happy.

I'll use Andrew Leach's Q&A about his Enbridge Professorship as model here.

What are the basic terms? The Brewers Association is paying the University an amount roughly comparable to 20% of my salary plus overheads. In addition, the award provides a discretionary research fund of $5,000. The award does not change the terms and conditions of my employment agreement with the University of Canterbury and does not change my rank; I remain Senior Lecturer. As internal accounting within the Department, but without variance to my employment contract, my teaching and other obligations will be reduced by roughly 20% to permit me time to work on alcohol policy related research.

Does this mean that the Brewers Association is paying part of your salary? Yes and no. The Brewers are providing the University with funding roughly equivalent to 20% of my cost to the University; the University pays my salary.

Can the position be revoked at the Brewers' request? No. But, the contract is only for three years. In two years' time, the Brewers, the University, and I will have the opportunity to discuss extending the arrangement. Either way, my employment agreement with the University will not change.

Are you required to be supportive of the Brewers' actions, statements, or policy preferences? No. The only expectation is that I'm able to spend some of my time at the University working on issues related to alcohol policy. The contract between the University and the Brewers strictly stipulates my full independence; academic freedom is also built into my employment contract with the University.

Does the arrangement specify subjects that you should or should not address in your research? The award does not place restrictions preventing me from undertaking any areas of research. I will be talking with the Brewers about the research projects I might undertake over the next three years, but the contract isn't particularly limiting. The Brewers will expect that I be available to provide quick economic analysis of research and policy around alcohol - the kind of analysis I've been providing on the blog and in other forums over the past several years anyway.

Do you expect me to believe you aren't conflicted by this arrangement? I cannot control others' beliefs. I invite the concerned reader to look back over the several past years' worth of alcohol policy analysis and commentary on this blog. Whatever bias I might have towards standard economic methods and methodological individualism is pretty well established. I expect that haters are gonna hate regardless of whether my work on alcohol issues is funded.

I'd balk pretty hard if academic freedom ever came under threat as consequence of this arrangement. I can't see any mechanism by which the Brewers could try to compromise my academic freedom. I also expect it would be exceptionally contrary to their interests to do so. But were it ever to come up, I'd be going pretty quickly to my Head of Department and Pro-Vice Chancellor to seek redress or to cancel things.

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