Some think tanks style themselves “universities without students,” but most are what I call “mission-driven” institutions. A mission-driven think tank produces (ideally rigorous) public policy research. But it is also supposed to stand for something: a particular vision of a just society. Last week’s high-speed train wreck at the Heritage Foundation should give pause to every supposedly mission-driven think tank that has a neglected or under-defined institutional mission.
My former Harvard classmate, Jason Richwine, resigned from Heritage last Friday amid public outcry over his 2009 doctoral thesis, “IQ and Immigration Policy.” In it, he argues that Hispanic immigrants as a group have a lower average IQ than do U.S. citizens born in the U.S., and he recommends that IQ tests be administered to prospective immigrants as one criterion for admission to the country.
Some immigration reform supporters imbibed more than a little Schadenfreude as the news cycle imploded. Not I. I remember Jason as a generous and genial man who refused to accept compensation in return for patiently tutoring me for an analytical methods qualifying exam in 2007. I find Jason’s research interests disturbing and his policy recommendations wrongheaded. But he is not an unkind person, and I feel badly for him and for his family.
I have neither time nor inclination to digest a stack of research about what Richwine calls “the construct of IQ” in order to develop an informed opinion about the quality of his empirical work. Reports are mixed. Tufts Professor Daniel Drezner is unimpressed, while Harvard Professor Richard Zeckhauser, who served on Richwine’s dissertation committee, calls it “careful.” (Disclosure: Zeckhauser is a former professor of mine.)
But even if Richwine’s empirical claims were well supported, I would find his policy proposal—that aspiring immigrants to the U.S. should be admitted or denied based in part on their IQ scores—philosophically objectionable for reasons that could well indicate that Richwine is a bad ideological fit for Heritage. Responding to Slate’s Dave Weigel, Zeckhauser usefully distinguishes the empirical from the normative:
“[M]y view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”
Policy recommendations necessarily depend on a combination of empirical findings and ideological commitments about the nature of a just society. From the perspective of justice, IQ importantly differs from acquired job skills. Job skills reflect individuals’ choices to improve their life prospects. It is certainly, sadly, true that not everyone has an opportunity to acquire such skills—a consideration in favor of welcoming at least some low-skilled immigrants. Nonetheless, a policy of favoring prospective immigrants who have job skills is more intuitively defensible than favoring some over others based on one narrow measure of undeveloped talent. Richwine’s proposal reasonably offends people who believe that our laws—even our immigration laws—should not deny important life opportunities to individuals based on prejudgments about their inborn capacities.
Heritage is a mission-driven think tank—it exists to promote a specific, conservative vision of a just society, and to develop policy proposals that are consistent with that vision. Success in this mission depends critically on hiring scholars who share Heritage’s animating values. If Heritage is institutionally committed to a conception of equal opportunity that precludes legal discrimination on the basis of inherent characteristics rather than choices and accomplishments, then Richwine is a poor ideological fit there.
But if this is the correct story, then Heritage should not have hired Richwine in the first place. Opportunistic firing (or even “resignation acceptance”) practices don’t somehow excuse careless hiring practices. Indeed, both are costly to wonks and to the institutions they inhabit in multiple ways.
Most obviously, a supposedly mission-driven think tank with no clear idea about who fits under its ideological tent doesn’t really have a mission. I don’t mean to suggest that a think tank’s mission should be narrow, or that its scholars must agree on everything. On the contrary, a think tank that demands lockstep agreement will never retain smart scholars. But if a think tank has a handful of truly defining commitments, those commitments should be clearly articulated lest the institution become media-driven or money-driven in lieu of advancing its mission.
Moreover, mission-driven think tanks that lack clear standards of inclusion—a category that includes nearly all of them—can be fearful places to work. One need not dabble in the dark arts to find oneself suddenly unemployed for straying too far from an ideological reservation with invisible fences. How far is too far? Most of the time, wonks find out only when they are handed their walking papers, asked to abandon cherished projects, or pressured to recant unacceptable statements.
Fear of incompetency can promote research excellence. Fear of being branded a heretic often precludes it. Most policy wonks live with too little of the former kind of fear and far too much of the latter. I believe that many mission-driven think tanks could achieve a better balance by reforming their hiring and firing practices simultaneously, bearing in mind a few general guidelines:
Clarity about shared ideological commitments – Think tank mission statements are usually lofty-sounding but vague. If a think tank has a set of core ideological commitments about the nature of justice and the proper role of the state, these should be specifically articulated somewhere, so that both financial supporters and scholars have clear expectations when they decide whether to invest time or money in the institution.
No mandatory empirical beliefs or policy conclusions – Insofar as a think tank holds itself out to be engaged in public policy scholarship as opposed to mere issue advocacy, it cannot be committed to predetermined findings and conclusions. These are the results of good public policy research, not the premises. A wonk who fears learning the “wrong” thing will fail to learn anything at all about the world, and her think tank will fail to make a meaningful new contribution to the public policy debate in which she participates. Unhealthy, research-spoiling fear squanders scholars’ talents and supporters’ money.
Greater emphasis on empirical skills – Good empirical skills are the best preservative of truth under pressure. Public policy scholars often add value by developing new public policy proposals, an essentially interdisciplinary task that requires empirical findings, ideological commitments, a savvy awareness of the location of the Overton window, and a working knowledge of any potential legal hurdles to implementation. Policy wonks do not necessarily need to be able to produce peer-reviewed social science research, but I’m going to go out on a limb and maintain that they should be able to understand and evaluate it if they address empirical questions in the course of their work.
Term contracts for policy scholars – I understand why mission-driven think tanks don’t grant tenure. Although adults’ ideological commitments are usually fairly stable, they can shift over time, sometimes dramatically. But the hasty departures that accompany media firestorms ill serve both think tanks and scholars. I wouldn’t blame Heritage at all for concluding that Richwine’s personal views are inconsistent with Heritage’s principled ideological commitments. Indeed, they are inconsistent with mine. But what we saw last week was a desperate damage control effort, not a sober reevaluation of Heritage’s staffing profile. Ubiquitous at-will employment arrangements in the think tank world diminish research quality and creative thinking by fueling the debilitating kind of fear. They also encourage a long-term pattern of scandal mongering and sometimes-feigned outrage among partisans and in the press. Replacing at-will agreements with standard two- or three-year employment contracts could paradoxically empower think tank executives to make thoughtful personnel decisions by tying their hands until the smoke clears.
Heritage was humiliated last week because its leaders failed to make personnel decisions thoughtfully in accordance with a clear institutional vision. Let it serve as a cautionary tale for other mission-driven think tanks. In a world of clear—not narrow!—standards, policy scholars could determine with more confidence where their own ideological commitments make them a good fit. In a world without them, we can expect more embarrassing departures and, I fear, more subtly compromised research.