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Missing Institutional Heritage

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.

Ideology, Partisanship, and Scholarship

Think tanks are often ideological and sometimes partisan, but critics who deploy these charges interchangeably miss a distinction that makes a difference.  “Once seen as non-ideological ‘universities without students,’ the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse,” Pacific Standard’s Emily Badger complained.  On the relationship between partisanship and ideology, she averred:  ”Those two terms…have become increasingly synonymous in modern politics.”  But while partisanship and ideology can each create conflicts of interest for think tank scholars, the two pressures are distinct, and they often conflict with each other.  Only by separating one from the other can we think carefully about how to insulate think tank research from influences that will diminish its quality.

When we refer to a person’s “ideology,” we are usually talking about a stable set of somewhat general (but not maximally general) moral and political principles. So understood, ideological principles serve as normative guideposts for, well, nearly everyone who ventures opinions about public policy. Indeed, even some fully-fledged political philosophers see value in these commitments. John Rawls called them “considered convictions,” and he believed that they play a legitimate role in philosophical deliberation. Elected representatives, opinion journalists, policy wonks at explicitly ideological institutions, grass roots advocates, and family members who discuss current events over the dinner table invoke their ideological commitments as a sort of magnetic north when they explore public policy ideas.

Studies suggest that adults have fairly stable ideologies, but they can evolve over time.  Some people experience a dramatic ideological conversion once or twice in their lives, either spurred by philosophical or religious study or as a result of coming to grips with facts about the world that cast doubt on the validity of their formerly-held principles.

Academics, traditional reporters, nonpartisan government analysts, and other political participants with highly technocratic orientations sometimes purport to eschew “ideology.” But as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently pointed out, technocrats need ideologies, too! Ideology is what analysts consult in order to decide which research questions are socially important and which are unworthy of exploration. As former Cato Institute research fellow Will Wilkinson explained:

There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.

Even those whose research agendas are set by others—lowly research assistants, OMB economists, and Iranian nuclear scientists come to mind—must at least assure themselves that their analytical skills are not furthering some evil purpose. To answer the question, “Is my job morally acceptable, or must I quit?” a researcher must consult her ideology. When academics undertake projects for the purpose of “advancing the science” of their discipline by refining its methods, they must ask and answer the same question.

“Partisanship” is a different thing. Political partisanship has to do with being a team player in a coalition that seeks electoral victory. To be “partisan,” therefore, is to speak and act for the purpose of advancing the electoral prospects of one’s party. Ideological convictions frequently determine the political party with which a person chooses to make common cause. This is a always choice of lesser evil, though, because ideologies can be as unique as snowflakes, while political parties are coalitions. A religious conservative does not share an ideology with a libertarian, nor does a labor democrat share an ideology with a deep ecologist.

Inevitably, the demands of partisanship will conflict with the demands of ideology. In 2003, for example, small government conservatives at the Heritage Foundation had to decide whether or not they would support President George W. Bush’s creation of Medicare Part D—a huge and unfunded new federal entitlement program. In that case, the think tank’s ideological commitments rather impressively prevailed over the pressures of partisanship. On the other hand, Heritage’s Obama-era about-face on the ideological acceptability of individual health insurance mandates raised questions about whether partisanship does not sometimes masquerade as ideological purity.

Both ideology and partisanship can create conflicts of interest when a public policy scholar hopes, for partisan or ideological reasons, that her analysis will have a particular outcome. Suppose that an analyst at Think Tank A is ideologically committed to a principle of noninterference with the internal conflicts of foreign nations. She may examine the effect of interventionist policies on the federal budget in the hope that her findings will persuade people concerned about the deficit to support a less interventionist foreign policy. If she discovers that foreign policy has little or no effect on the deficit, she will be disappointed.  Similarly, a partisan may hope to vindicate the education reforms of a particular president during re-election season. If he discovers that the reforms actually did not benefit students, he will be disappointed by his findings as well.

This kind of conflict does not bedevil wonks alone. Traditional academics also hope that their research will reflect favorably on their ideological or partisan commitments. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, whose personal views are liberal, recently published a book in which he reports that George W. Bush’s policies reflected the preferences of poor and working class voters far more accurately than did those of Presidents Clinton or Johnson.  Gilens jokingly described his surprise and chagrin:

Certainly for Bush 43—George W. Bush—I would not have expected high levels of responsiveness to anybody except maybe the most affluent.  Like a good political scientist, when I found these results, I said there must be some mistake in the coding.  I did everything I could, you know, to make them go away.  But they were very persistent.

Ideology is not wholly dispensable for public policy scholars, regardless of where they work. Therefore, ideological conflicts of interest cannot always be sidestepped.  Because good research is a lot like good driving, such conflicts may negatively impact research quality despite a scholar’s honest best efforts.  Ideological conflicts should therefore be acknowledged and carefully managed by both scholars and institutions in a way that protects research quality.  At explicitly ideologically committed institutions, I believe that this challenge is among the biggest challenges in think tank ethics.

A scholar’s partisan allegiances, if any, have no necessary role to play in her research process. This is not to say that a passionate partisan is capable of entirely ignoring the partisan implications of her research, but it seems like an unambiguously worthy goal. Indeed, nearly all U.S. think tanks make public claims of nonpartisanship. These commitments are encouraged by the tax code, but when and where they are taken seriously, they promote good research practices by minimizing an unnecessary source of bias. Indeed, it seems to me that nonpartisanship is especially valuable to think tanks with ideological missions. It is challenging, but I believe possible, to maintain good research standards in an ideologically committed institution. Partisanship simultaneously undermines both organizational goals.

Perspective: Edwin Meese III Discusses Institutional Mission Fidelity and the Advantage of Broad-Based Support

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation and former chairman of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, comments on mission fidelity, management practices, and the advantage of a broad base of support.  The interview took place on October 25, 2012.

Mr. Meese, we were talking about having an inner discipline about being committed to the mission. [How do you] not allow the possibility of specific donations to divert you from your principles?

MEESE:  As you say, we don’t do contract work, [and] we don’t take any governmental funds from any government. We try to be very transparent in all that we do. We are clear about what our mission is, clear about what our principles are, clear about what our objectives are, clear about what our overall philosophy is.  [P]eople who desire to become members of Heritage, who desire to contribute to Heritage Foundation, understand that that they are contributing because they want to be part of and support the work we do rather than the other way around.

Everybody has a mission statement, and it’s often highly general. So how do you figure out what [the mission statement] means in the context of specific research programs?

MEESE:  Well, for one thing, we set up our primary principles of individual liberty, limited government, free market economics, strong national defense, support of what we call “traditional American values.” That [last one is] the only one that’s a little bit nebulous there, and by that we mean family and religion, we mean patriotism, we mean things like a commitment to work, individual responsibility.  Then, we have our mission: to promote a society in which freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We say clearly, we are nonpartisan, but we are conservative, so we are committed to a philosophy but not to a political party or any candidates.

It’s hard to resist partisan pressures when they arise. How do you do that?

MEESE:  Well, it’s not hard, because we’ve been doing it so long, and everybody who is here understands that.  But we are attentive to the issue, and we have a system within our management structure so that we provide guidance to all of our people, particularly in an election year, as to how they are to act and how they are to respond to things like questions from a political organization of any sort.  [T]he organizers must understand that we would give the same thing to their opponents.

For example, if they call, we provide briefings to candidates across the board. Now, obviously, one party is more likely to ask questions and to seek information from a conservative organization than the other party, but we do [briefings] on a nonpartisan basis. The second the thing we do is, we don’t get involved in support—Heritage itself—in support of legislation or opposition to specific legislation. We do have a 501(c)(4) organization, Heritage Action for America is a sister organization, and they they are able to lobby, but again, not to support specific candidates or anything like that.

A lot of the research that scholars at think tanks do is more applied than what’s going on in academic departments. Where do you see the position of think tanks and what they do, related to academia on one side and activists on the other?

MEESE:  I would say that that we pride ourselves on [our] information being factual, on being supported by evidence, by looking at counterarguments, and by trying to provide recommendations in terms of what policy will be. Our policy ideas, if you will, can be useful, and hopefully would be adopted by people of whatever political party, based on the overall direction of our philosophy. Our President, Ed Feulner, has said that he often hears from Democrat congressman that they look at Heritage materials—our issue briefs, for example—and they can use everything up to the final page, which has the the conclusion and the recommendations. They said they tear that page off and use the rest of it. We consider that a good thing.

Do you have any internal ethics policies or conflict of interest policies and guidelines in the organization?

MEESE:  Gosh, only on political activity. We have clear-cut rules on political activity. But we do have a management structure, so somebody from the beginning people in the organization, policy analysts who start here of as well as support people, all the way to the president, they have someone that can go to for advice and guidance on any of the, what you might call ethics issues. And likewise, we have we have reviews for factual matters, so we have a series of editorial reviews of anything coming out of here.

So, you have a quality review process, where you vet work before it’s published.

MEESE:  Sometimes we may even have more than one. Say we are doing something on national security law. We will want to make sure that it is been vetted by people who are our experts on national security as well as by our legal experts. If they were talking about something like the Law of the Sea Treaty, they would want to have it vetted by, not only their experts from the navigational standpoint, the economics standpoint, but also from the constitutional legal standpoint.

So, this process of review is to make sure that we have [good] quality in terms of accuracy, as well as of course readability and those other qualities. That is part of our regular process. [E]very Monday morning at our management meetings, where we have our our senior management and our next level of management, we have a review of all the topics that are being researched, and what you might call “major policy documents.”

If you were going to give some advice to a new, small think tank that is just getting off the ground and trying to develop best practices, what advice would you give them?

MEESE:  Well, first of all, hire good scholars. Look carefully at people’s background for, obviously, intellectual capability, as well as the other things you need, writing style and all that. Look at their background in terms of their education, and ascertain to make sure they have intellectual integrity. Those qualities you need. And then, of course, a thorough review of the policies of the organization—the things we’ve been talking about, the mission, the philosophy, and those kinds of things—hopefully before they are hired.

The next thing, of course, would be that they understand the review process, and then particularly having a process of how you handle what you might call complaints, criticisms, that sort of thing.  [L]et’s say somebody publishes paper and the next day you have EJ Dionne or someone like that criticizing the paper.  We would want to first speak to the analyst who wrote the paper and probably that person’s superior officer to see whether the criticism was in any way justified or accurate. If it isn’t, we decide what kind of rebuttal we want to have, whether we’re just going to let it go because it’s inconsequential or nobody believes that person anyway. Or, they’ve got a good point, and we go back and check our informational resources to make sure we are accurate. If we’re right, we defend the position. If somebody’s made a mistake, we correct it. In other words, we maintain absolute integrity in terms of factual matter.

How do you handle instances of empirical disagreement when they crop up within the organization? For example, if one person thinks program X tends to increase literacy, and another person can’t find that effect, how do you hammer those things out?

MEESE:  It goes to the next level of management. If we get to a total impasse, then we would figure out how to handle it. Usually it’s not so much on a factual matter as it is, like you say, an interpretation or an idea of how we are proceed from there. Sometimes, take a tough subject like immigration policy, as we have a couple years ago, where we were essentially at odds with what George W. [Bush] wanted to do, and some of the others, and we had people on both sides within the organization, several sides that case. So, what we will often do is put together a working group, and I’m often asked to head them up, or someone else fairly senior here. We would bring all people together and argue it out and ultimately either reach a consensus, which is often what we are able to do, or just have to flat make a decision.

I took a look at your annual reports, and I noticed that you seem to recognize a lot of your donors.

MEESE:  We want to recognize, particularly the major donors, but we also have 700,000 people who are members, so even what we put in our annual report is just a very small fraction of our total body of contributors.

Would you say that there are any advantages to having a very broad donor base in terms of the mission, or being able to maintain a measure of independence from any one donor?

MEESE:  Absolutely, that’s very important. The broader the base, the better, not being dependent on any one individual, or one organization, or one foundation. We are probably, of all the major research and education foundations, less dependent on corporate support than most. It’s certainly less than 6% [of annual revenues]. I’m not sure exactly, but somewhere very, very low. And that’s for a reason, because we have had situations when corporations disagree with us or want us to move in a particular direction that’s favorable towards their ideas or their products. We just don’t do that, so we deliberately keep our corporate support as a small percentage of our total support.