Cardus does research on all kinds of things: the contribution of churches to the vitality of cities, the importance of charitable giving for society, outcomes of education, as well as work and economics. What's the point of all this research? Why do we do it?
It's a valid question, and it comes specifically to my mind after a phone call I received last week. We recently released a paper on the College of Trades, a new institution created by the Ontario government to modernize the trades. The paper reviewed the literature, compared the College to other similar institutions, examined the legislation behind the College and ultimately concluded, based on the evidence, that the College lacks evidence to back up its claims, and that it is not likely to achieve its goals in a cost-efficient way. We sent the study all over the province, to government, to those in the College, to those in industry, to all major newspapers.
In other words, we looked at the evidence, made conclusions, and went public with those conclusions.
I received a phone call the next day from a proponent of the College. Was he interested in our conclusions? No. Was he interested in our methodology? No. Did he disagree with our conclusions and/or desire to point out errors of fact or methodology? No, he didn't read the paper. He wanted to know who was behind the paper, who paid for it.
In other words, the caller wanted to suggest our research panders to private interests. Sadly, he completely misses the point of public research. Suggesting that public policy dialogue is best furthered by evaluating research based on its institutional connection rather than the evidence, methodology, and conclusions its brings forth, understands politics as a game played by teams who—in ignorance of the evidence before both parties—fight to win. In short, it's a view of public life which sees policy as formed by the winners based on whom they associate with, rather than what is shared by all.
Such things do not strengthen our political culture. Political culture is weakened by the brawl between private interests, and evidence is left without a dance partner. Public policy research has two key purposes: to educate and inform the public, and to begin a discussion based on evidence available to all citizens. The fact that Cardus publicly releases our evidence and places it into the public square suggests that we believe the public good is best served by public discussion over evidence.
Criticisms about methodology, facts and their use are always fair game. Criticisms based on money are sometimes fair game, especially if the research is shoddy. But looking to accuse an organization—which has placed its research into the public realm for all to criticize—of having a secret agenda pandering to private interests? It's lazy, and works against the public good.