Tuesday 10 June 2014

The value of reputation: NZ Public Health edition

So the Ministry of Justice relied on SHORE to produce some sensible estimates of the price elasticity of alcohol demand in New Zealand for its report on minimum alcohol pricing. It didn't go well. Recall what the Ministry of Justice report had to say about the elasticity estimates produced by SHORE:
Another significant concern is that the size of the elasticity estimates generated by AC Nielsen and the SHORE and Whariki Research Centre are very large compared to international estimates, and result in significant changes in consumption when the various pricing options are analysed. The large off-licence elasticities may be driven by the fact that both regular prices and promotional prices are included in the elasticities. The large on-licence elasticities are likely to be a consequence of a reasonably small sample size and cross-sectional data. 
It was decided that the significant reductions in consumption estimated using NZ elasticity estimates are not a realistic representation of what is likely to happen in reality and are contrary to all international evidence of the responsiveness of alcohol consumers to changes in price. 
So SHORE produces estimates that are "not a realistic representation of what is likely to happen in reality and are contrary to all international evidence". I'd discussed the MoJ report here. 

Sally Casswell is Director of SHORE. 

2014 Funding Round – Project
Professor Sally Casswell
Massey University, Auckland
Alcohol Policy Interventions in New Zealand (APINew Zealand) - effects of change in sale and supply$1,191,469
36 months
Lay summaryThis research investigates alcohol consumption in New Zealand to measure the effects of changes brought about by new legislation regulating the sale and supply of alcohol. It follows the same people over time surveying them not only about their drinking patterns but also issues which may be affected by policy: for example purchasing patterns: time of day they buy alcohol, how far they travel, how much they pay. The research also measures the alcohol environment using available data and key informant interviews to predict how people's behaviour might change. Those who report large changes in their drinking behaviour will be followed up in more depth to explore what policy and non-policy influences have affected their behaviour. This New Zealand study is part of an international collaboration and allows comparisons between different countries. The goal is to inform the development and implementation of effective alcohol policy and reduce alcohol related harm.
$1.1 million to Casswell from the government. SHORE's general survey work at least is more reliable than their attempt at modelling elasticities. Their analysis on the survey work is often pretty bad, but the surveys themselves are potentially useful.

When I'd pointed to declining youth drinking rates a few months ago, Casswell wrote this letter to the NZMJ critical of the much much smaller amount of money that the Brewers Association provided as grant to the University of Canterbury. One-sided skepticism is lovely.

Meanwhile, the University of Otago's temperance crusaders scored another research grant from the government: $1.190 million (a thousand dollars less than Casswell got, for some reason). Here's the HRC summary. I note these bits from Otago's press release on their awarded grant:
Lead investigator Dr Brett Maclennan says the new Act is intended to reduce harm resulting from the excessive consumption of alcohol but it omits almost all of the evidence-based strategies recommended by the Law Commission in its 2010 review.
...Professor Kypros Kypri, a co-investigator on the project, says that “public desire for better alcohol policy is very strong and people were disappointed at the way the Law Commission recommendations for reform were watered down. It is important to know whether the new law is effective and we are delighted to see independent peer-reviewed research funded in this area.”
Well, at least we know their priors. Kypri isn't at Otago but rather at Newcastle, where he argues that the drinking age should increase to 21.

Recall that, in 2008, National ran on an anti-nanny-state ticket. But they keep shovelling funding towards outfits that seem guaranteed to demand ever-tighter controls on alcohol.



  1. The problem isn't limited to MoH or the health sector. The reality of research funding in NZ is that it is unresponsive to policy concerns. This happened a few years ago with FRST. The Minister said that FRST funding was going to target applied, practical science, and when the results were announced it was the same old, same old. It happened with the Marsden fund, too. The bureaucracy hands the decision over to the panels to create a buffer of plausible deniability.

    These sorts of research grants are largely dispensed by the inner circle to their friends and proteges. SHORE exists because it was able to get money in the past, which means it will continue to get money in the future.

    I'm in favour of a lottery. It would be more equitable and reduce transactions costs.

  2. And the same thing will happen with the government's intended push of PBRF funding towards research impact. Where the government means "helps improve policy or do cool stuff for NZ", the Panel will choose to read this as journal impact factors.

  3. I agree with Bill, below. University researchers are sometimes totally unaware of the policy environment from where the contracts eminate, so they cannot provide sensible results even if they wanted to. Other times its almost dishonest the way they (researchers) take money for one purpose and then push their pre-determined barrows. So in that sense its not all together surprising when we get the reports that we do. What I did find surprising was the enormity of the grants given - I would be interested to know whether there are (proper) competitive tenders going on, or are the recipients pre-determined? In any event, its hard to see how the Ministry concerned can think its in any way getting value for money for that amount of research $$$.

  4. Just about everybody remembers Eisenhower's phrase "militaryindustrial complex" and his concern about that but few remember he then said :

    "Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientifictechnological elite.

    It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society."

    He'd be casting a few ironic looks our way if he was still around.


  5. Too true. The study on which all of the alcohol law changes have been based by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, was entirely predictable in its findings and opinions. It is as if they decided what they wanted first and then tasked someone to go out and find the research which supported those views.

  6. I'm pretty sure the Marsden fund does not take political direction in how it allocates its funding. Having Known a few Marsden panel chairs, I'd expect they'd rather resign. Marsden (unlike say MoBIE or FRST funds) is supposed to be investigator directed --- it's about research, not policy. According to their website, the HRC makes the same claim: "We allocate the majority of our funding through an annual funding round to independent research projects that are researcher initiated."

    Disclaimer: Marsden recipient & sometime pannelist & James Cook fellow.