Another plug for thinking about New Brunswick

I guy came up to me today at church and told me one of the things he liked about my TJ column was the interesting data and trends that I use to help me make my points.   He made the offhanded comment that he rarely sees this kind of data used in public debates about the future of New Brunswick.

I have said this before but it is worth repeating.  We need to have a formal organization or think tank that is pumping out good quality, comparative statistics and insight that can be used to shape the public policy framework in the province and build broader awareness of the extent of the challenges among the populace.

I know I am beating a dead horse here but it is a new government and there seems to be increasing interest among business leaders to tackle the issues – now they need an organization – preferably outside government weighing in on the main issues of the day with expert opinion and insight in a sustained and systematic way.

I go back to the Centre for Competitiveness and Prosperity in Ontario.  I am almost sure that organization has influenced governments – in Ontario and the federal government – with its almost relentless light shed on a fundamental issue for the economic progress of that province and the country.

Some say New Brunswick is too small for such a think tank and we need to rely on AIMS and APEC as well as the occassional work coming out of national ogranizations.

I disagree.  I would love to see a group churning out publications on a monthly basis, commenting on policy proposals, aggregating research from other sources, blogging on topics of interest, hosting events designed to raise awareness among the public, etc.

It’s one thing for a columnist to write a few points in a column.   I think there are a few columnists tackling important issues.  But that’s not the same thing.

The time has come to invest in thinking – in a big way – about New Brunswick and its future.

9 thoughts on “Another plug for thinking about New Brunswick

  1. I think that many citizens/taxpayers would say that we are already spending good money on our universities to do just that. If they are failing the grade in that respect, surely we should be pushing them to do more. We need to demand that the unis throw off their postmodernist trappings and start doing good data analysis again. Otherwise, we should turn off the funding tap and use those funds elsewhere.

  2. I’ll say it again, virtually EVERY new organization in the country has been a PRIVATE undertaking. AIMS got started by a small group which was then funded by those who saw their interests being upbraided.
    The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives does good work, sometimes they use studies from AIMS-because SOME AIMS studies really are good. When they argue for transparancy in government, not a lot of people have a dispute with that.
    They also have regional departments, but unfortunately they don’t have an office in NB.
    To wait for a conservative government to set up an ‘arms length’ think tank would be fairly ridiculous I think. To START one wouldn’t be quite as ridiculous.
    Again, there already IS quite a bit of research out there, statistics canada stuff is rarely mentioned except here. As I mentioned when we were debating about the Finn Report, I came across a WELSH study published in Great Britain on, strange enough, small and medium sized water treatment facilities in New Brunswick Canada. At the Kitchener library I came across a book from the US on public policy that featured Frank McKenna’s ‘workfare’ program, one of the first of its kind.
    Politics doesn’t work in a vacuum. A think tank is simply another word for ‘lobby’. Of course what has to be kept in mind is that often research says something different than what is pushed at this site.
    If you want a think tank-START a think tank. Go to the Canadian Institute for International governance-CIGI-that was started by ONE professor sitting in a room. Now look.

  3. From my perspective, these think tanks have functioned mostly as propaganda organizations, pumping out biased and dubious research. I don’t think New Brunswick needs one of those.

  4. ALL studies have a bias, and all organizations have a bias-thats just life. Even government departments have a bias dependant on who is in power. The point is that within NB all the research that gets pointed to comes from AIMS. So THAT bias is already there. I’d be happy to see ONE such organization, but really what is needed is DOZENS. Think tanks are like newspapers, they are not monolithic. Sometimes people within the organization do research that shows something other than the ‘bias’ of the organization, and those people still want that research out there or the time is wasted.

    In a place like New Brunswick there really is NO argument against more or better organizations. You might as well say that “we already have Irving papers and they aren’t so good so we really don’t want more newspapers”. That’s downright crazy. Whether its ‘biased’ or not, is not the point, that it EXISTS is the point.

    It’s like saying that the blogs that exist do a ‘bad job’ so no more are needed. Like I said, AIMS does some bad social science its true, but they also do some decent ones. They do a LOT of studies and commentaries, and some of them are good, and even in a bad study at least good information gets out there. When I read David’s blog I can usually skip the first and last two paragraphs because the ‘meat’ is in the middle. I may disagree with the ‘bias’ (not as often as you’d think though) but at least the information is there.

    Having said that, its worth pointing out that the Graham government, in a move I don’t think was even discussed here, DID start some kind of organization with Andy Scott which was going to be some kind of ‘link’ between government and university research, so I can imagine some government official reading all this and saying “geez, we dont’ do what people ask and get slammed-and DO what they request and get ignored!”

    I think there was only one report on the CBC website, and I can’t remember the name of the organization, but there you are-wish granted. Now go find them and find out what they’re doing.

  5. “ALL studies have a bias”

    But some studies are based on a fair rigorous analysis of all the available data. Sometimes those analyses point in one direction; that isn’t a bias, its where the data tell you to go. AIMS and CTF, for example, often cherry-pick data, ignoring facts inconvenient to their pre-conceived conclusions. We do not need an anti-AIMS that cherry-picks in the opposite direction; we need fact-based data analyses. The conclusions of those analyses are perhaps even less important than the data they provide. Those data, desiminated in a user-friendly format, are the basis of useful discussion and dialogue.

    AS I said above, we already have the institutions that should be providing these analyses – our universities. Unfortunately, they have fallen down on the job. They will have to throw off the shackles of post-modernism before they are of much use.

    Andy Scott, BTW, was hired to head up the Social Policy Research Network. Basically, its just that, a networking group, not a research unit per se. A way for UNB to deflect from its responsibilities, at the cost of Scott’s salary.

  6. Data is just numbers and no set of numbers tell the whole story. All data sets need parameters, and thats where the bias comes from. Cherry picking is ALWAYS present because you simply can’t get ALL the data, and can’t get it in a useable form for either economics or politics.
    But every study is going to be different, some are certainly better than others, and thats why quantity is needed. But even bad studies are better than NO studies.
    The universities DO have a fair bit of content, they ‘do’ what they do regardless of whether YOU like them or not. We don’t yet know what the Social Policy Research Network IS, because its only just started, but the universities DO have research, and this organization is supposed to ‘network’ with them to bridge the gap between university and government. We don’t know how well they are going to do that, but obviously if there is going to be a bridge, then the universities have to produce something the government wants, or there’s no need for a bridge.
    Whether it was a liberal payout remains to be seen, and perhaps the tories won’t want to deal with them because of Andy Scott, but we certainly don’t know that YET.
    But name me ONE research organization that exists ANYWHERE that doesn’t have a ‘bias’ of one sort or another. Getting rid of bias works the same way that Geddy Lee says you become a good guitar player-you build up such a huge number of influences that eventually you get your own style.
    I’m pretty sure Richard said he was a scientist, so he knows full well that even in the ‘hard’ sciences the peer review system has all KINDS of bias built right into it.

    But I’d FAR rather we spent time picking apart flawed studies from ANY organization rather than have no information at all.

  7. “Data is just numbers and no set of numbers tell the whole story. All data sets need parameters, and thats where the bias comes from.”

    The point is to be as fair as possible. That is not what propaganda organs like AIMS do. Everyone is entitled to their opinion (or bias), but that is fundamentally different from deliberately omitting data that contradicts one’s POV. That is a common tactic of orgs like AIMS but it is not common in good scientific work. What I am saying is, let’s bring back the good scientific practices to these issues and not let cherry-pickers rule the day. That won’t get us anywhere. In fact, in the US its obvious that that approach is disastrous. Sadly, we seem to be on the same track here. When you have only opinions to offer, the rich can get their opinions (and the chery-picked data to support it) in front of more faces than anyone else.

    “I’m pretty sure Richard said he was a scientist, so he knows full well that even in the ‘hard’ sciences the peer review system has all KINDS of bias built right into it. ”

    The peer review system has worked extremely well, despite its flaws. Science is highly conservative and that tends to keep the crap out. There is a price to be paid in terms of raising the bar for new approaches, but no one has developed a better system.

    “But I’d FAR rather we spent time picking apart flawed studies from ANY organization rather than have no information at all.”

    Well, I’d rather have good data to start with, desimminated in a reader-friendly format, then reach my own conclusions. That is what the unis should be doing here in NB, but they have let us down badly.

  8. Again, I’m not disagreeing that ‘great quality research’ wouldn’t be a fabulous thing, but this is New Brunswick, where to quote Mr. Campbell’s often made claim-just not being worst would be a start.
    I disagree about AIMS, and it should be noted that currently there are LOTS of AIMS studies that are peer reviewed. In economics today ‘peer reviewed’ means little, because look at who the peers are. Even the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has used AIMS studies. Peer review is unfortunately part of the problem, because if you are taking history, economics or political science and want to get a study in a journal, then you aren’t going to pick a new brunswick topic because few journals would be interested.
    I do agree about the Universities, and what would be nice is to have some kind of lobby group looking at Andy Scott’s group to see what they are doing. Public debate and policy tends to be MUCH more open when somebody is paying attention to it. As I’ve said numerous times, its practically a CRIME that NB has no Hansards available. But because there is little clamour for it, the government can get away with it. The squeeky wheel gets the grease.
    But again, there is LOTS of stuff out there that doesn’t get into the mainstream press. I just typed in the province and economics and got a study on ‘mining friendly new brunswick’ for a tungsten project. There is always lots of material from industry journals and papers, but this doesn’t reach the public, and its unknown whether the public would care if it did.
    But it does need SOMEBODY to champion it. And again, thats why I was excited by davids podcasts, but was disappointed they weren’t marketed or even libraried anywhere. With Youtube there are all kinds of opportunities, but nobody seems to be really interested (even though unemployment is now in double digits).

  9. I’m surprised AIMS and APEC aren’t producing more of this stuff. Maybe the new Atlantic office of the Canadian TaxPayers Federation will help?

    A New Brunswick version of the Huffington Post anyone? I’m sure Charles Leblanc would make a wonderful legislative reporter!

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