The two faces of "unbiased" think tanks and research centers
Recently I received an email invitation to a joint venture between the think tank Resources for the Future (RFF) and the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. Both organizations promote themselves as research oriented and policy relevant. RFF is a non-profit organization focused on changing policy. However, the Ivy League based Wharton research center houses academic researchers... what is an appropriate role for them in the policymaking process?
Howard Kunreuther heads up the Wharton research center and has studied disaster insurance programs since the 1970s. HIs specialty is the National Flood Insurance Program that began in 1968. Since Hurricane Katrina and extratropical storm Sandy, Kunreuther and the Wharton Research Center has become remarkably politically powerful by molding the leading narrative around US disaster insurance thinking.
In many ways, helping to change how we think about the world is the role of the scholar. Scholars present data that challenges the status quo and help identify the social value trade offs with which society must grapple in order to resolve its difficulties. This however, is not what the Kunreuther and the Wharton research center has done... at least not anytime recently.
Rather, the group has made significant effort to encourage specific policy changes that not only reflect a rather market centric economist perspective on what ought to be and what society should value. They also have placed an inherently political concern (social risk and what to do about it) under the guise of unbiased research. The solution they have advocated for is of course, more market based insurance where the market is free to define the risk that society faces and ought to insure against.
This is a trans science issue and Wharton center experts along with the policymakers that tout them mistake (to be kind) a political problem as a technical one.
The invitation I received outlined the following objective:
We have invited world-renowned experts to evaluate several disaster insurance programs and share their findings with us in November. At the workshop, we will draw lessons from these programs and discuss how to:
· Design efficient and fair disaster insurance systems that encourage investments in cost-effective measures to reduce losses and enhance individual and community resilience;
· Develop disaster financing systems that harness both public- and private-sector strengths to reduce losses from future catastrophes and aid the recovery process;
· Reduce the disaster insurance coverage gap in the United States; and
· Reform the National Flood Insurance Program by applying lessons learned from other government disaster programs.
All the bold emphasis above are mine intended to note explicit objectives of policy advocacy. In other words, this is not a research meeting seeking draw consensus about the state of knowledge or an opportunity to improve alignment between knowledge production and social problems. Instead, this is an explicit effort to harness the authority of a handful of technological elite to change public policy as the organizations have defined as appropriate.
The icing on the cake are the sponsors of the meeting:
We would like to extend a special thanks to the sponsors of this workshop: The American Academy of Actuaries, The American Risk and Insurance Association, Risk Management Solutions, The Society of Actuaries, and XL Catlin.
The sponsors represent various facets of the insurance industry. At least several (if not all) would benefit from increasing market power to define the value laden concept of risk and in turn, what to do about it.
The meeting demonstrates the two faces of "unbiased" think tanks and many academic researchers. Here, both of these organizations attempt to pass themselves off as producing research for societal benefit at the same time as defining societal benefit in the context of their own value preferences.
No one is unbiased, that is part of being human. Honesty and transparency are perhaps better goals in which to aspire. Clearly some more than others are more honest with themselves and others about what they are doing. It doesn't appear that the more mindful are involved in agenda planning for this meeting.