• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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The responsibility of research (?)

While I learned a lot from reading Jane Mayer's "Covert Operations" in The New Yorker, little of it shocked me. I'd known for some time about the Koch brothers, the leading financiers of libertarian thought, government- (particularly EPA-) bashing and -- more recently -- the unfocused anger (mostly, it seems, among older white folks) that calls itself the "Tea Party Movement".

August 29, 2010
 
 

While I learned a lot from reading Jane Mayer's "Covert Operations" in The New Yorker, little of it shocked me. I'd known for some time about the Koch brothers, the leading financiers of libertarian thought, government- (particularly EPA-) bashing and -- more recently -- the unfocused anger (mostly, it seems, among older white folks) that calls itself the "Tea Party Movement". I hadn't known the extent to which the Koch's spending levels exceeded those of ExxonMobil and Richard Mellon Scaife, but given the amount of effort all three funders put into hiding their initiatives under astroturf covers, that's hardly surprising.

What came at least close to shocking me was what Mayer wrote about George Mason University's Mercatus Center. According to the article:

The Wall Street Journal has called the Mercatus Center “the most important think tank you’ve never heard of,” and noted that fourteen of the twenty-three regulations that President George W. Bush placed on a “hit list” had been suggested first by Mercatus scholars. [Richard] Fink [founder of Mercatus and director or co-founder of many other Koch-funded organizations] told the paper that the Kochs have “other means of fighting [their] battles,” and that the Mercatus Center does not actively promote the company’s private interests. But Thomas McGarity, a law professor at the University of Texas, who specializes in environmental issues, told me that “Koch has been constantly in trouble with the E.P.A., and Mercatus has constantly hammered on the agency.” An environmental lawyer who has clashed with the Mercatus Center called it “a means of laundering economic aims.” The lawyer explained the strategy: “You take corporate money and give it to a neutral-sounding think tank,” which “hires people with pedigrees and academic degrees who put out credible-seeming studies. But they all coincide perfectly with the economic interests of their funders.”

A quick peek at Mercatus's web site reveals a list of working papers which, if their titles and blurbs are to be believed, seems entirely consistent with an observation of "perfect coincidence". And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. Academics get to study whatever they want, and academic institutions (no doubt including university-connected "research centers") get to hire whatever academics they want. But in Mercatus's case, academic freedom seems to be operating in pretty much the same pattern as "religious freedom" did in Puritan Massachusetts. (Think Roger Williams or Anne Hutchison.) The courts have ruled that freedom of the press applies only to the person who owns one; maybe a case can be made that freedom of academe can be similarly restricted.

But, if Mayer is accurate, Mercatus has developed a pattern in which ideology frequently trumps accuracy. Not only is its fellows' selection of subject matter significantly slanted, but:

In January, 2008, Charles Koch wrote in his company newsletter that America could be on the verge of “the greatest loss of liberty and prosperity since the 1930s.” That October, Americans for Prosperity [a Koch-founded and -funded organization which claims "1.2 million activists" while enrolling only some eight thousand members] held a conference of conservative operatives at a Marriott hotel outside Washington. Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of the conservative blog RedState.com, took the lectern, thanked David Koch, and vowed to “unite and fight . . . the armies of the left!” Soon after Obama assumed office, Americans for Prosperity launched “Porkulus” rallies against Obama’s stimulus-spending measures. Then the Mercatus Center released a report claiming that stimulus funds had been directed disproportionately toward Democratic districts; eventually, the author was forced to correct the report, but not before Rush Limbaugh, citing the paper, had labelled Obama’s program “a slush fund,” and Fox News and other conservative outlets had echoed the sentiment.

Now, I have no wish to disparage George Mason University in any way. It's a school which has grown phenomenally while building a strong academic reputation, and its Office of Sustainability is doing excellent work.(I particularly admire the way they've set up their Student Training for Environmental Protection program.) And I should make it clear that more-or-less-independent institutes and centers make up the aspect of American multiversities with which I'm least familiar. But I find the image of Mercatus as a bespoke academic conclusion shop to be deeply troubling. Perhaps even more troubling than the information-access restrictions reportedly in place at the George W. Bush Presidential Library at SMU.

I can't help but wonder whether there's any sort of academic accountability applied to these centers and institutes -- some check of their independence, their integrity, the accuracy of their products. Do they get significantly addressed during institutional accreditation reviews? Should they?

If it's true that Higher Ed participation in what's often referred to as the "marketplace of ideas" is subject to distortion due to funds availability (perhaps compounded by a lack of information about the sources of funding), is there any sort of Consumers Union or Underwriters Laboratories on the scene? And, if not, should there be?

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