The discussion over the proper role of government agencies in any kind of political debate is always cast in terms of selfless public servants fighting to do what is best for all Americans verses self-serving, uncaring lobbyists that do the bidding of the unenlightened or, worse yet, Big Corporations. Cast in such terms policy discussions become the 21st Century equivalent of a medieval morality play.
But men are human beings, not angels, and employment at or by a government agency does not make anyone omniscient nor omnibenevolent. Government employees have their own biases and agendas just like anyone working for a lobbying organization. In some cases it was doubtlessly those biases that caused government workers to seek the power that a government agency can deliver in the first place.
While I work in many fields, several years ago I began doing alcohol related research and now follow the literature and the debate. I am proud to say that I have been criticized by both lobbyists for alcohol distributors (evil) and public health officials (angels).
The amount of truly bad research published either by government agencies or through “scholars” funded by government grants is astonishing. It is clear that many government alcohol researchers have their own personal agendas. Being on the side of angels, they have carte blanche to present poorly crafted, disingenuous research in order to advance their preferred public policy options.
Don’t believe me? Thomas Babor, a public health researcher, published a very revealing commentary in 2012. [“Estimating the societal costs of alcohol: a bridge too far?” Commentaries, Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Vol. 29, 2012] Discussing a question of methodology, Babor noted that the real purpose behind a particular area of alcohol research was to “shame, blame and defame” politicians into doing the right thing. Accuracy in research? Who cares as long as the “right thing” is done? Naturally, the “right thing” is defined by Babor. While such a statement should disqualify Babor from government research grants, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) has given Babor $340,000 in grants since he made the statement. He has received nearly $2.2 million since 2000. Americans’ tax dollars continue to be spent in order for Babor to “shame, blame and defame.”
Babor is not alone. David Jernigan is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health – the kind of person given “angel” status in any public health debate. Is he objective? According to Jernigan he is “skeptical of pure objectivity in science” and his “research questions have always been driven by what the policy opportunities are in the moment or what policy opportunities (he) can promote.” (Bloomberg School of Public Health podcast, November, 2011) Objectivity does not matter; what is important is what he can promote. Jernigan has actually taught classes in media advocacy. Not surprisingly, some of Jernigan’s research methods have been described as unethical. Since 2009 the NIAAA and CDC have given Jernigan nearly $8 million of taxpayer money to “promote” his policy positions.
William Kerr is an alcohol researcher who has worked on numerous occasions for the National Alcoholic Beverage Control Association (NABCA) – the trade group representing the 17 states that have some kind of alcohol monopoly. As one might expect, the NABCA spends a lot of time defending state sponsored alcohol monopolies. Washington voters voted to end their state monopoly in 2012 – a development that did not please the other state monopolies represented by NABCA.
Kerr has a serious conflict of interest when it comes to state alcohol monopolies—but that did not stop NIAAA from giving Kerr a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract to study the effects of privatization in Washington State.
These researchers could not have gotten their recent grants without someone within NIAAA/CDC being complicit. Despite a lack of objectivity, someone shares their views and is willing to fund their advocacy research with taxpayer dollars. The rampant politicization of government research is a waste of taxpayers’ money and the disinformation that it breeds can lead to misinformed policy decisions. For once, let’s keep the government out of something.
Stringham is the Davis Endowed Professor of Economic Organizations and Innovation at Trinity College, and is author of Private Governance from Oxford University Press.