Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Lysenko Affair in Private Enterprise Sponsored Research

Today, the social science research community of my country is shaken by a scandal of groundbreaking magnitude. The private enterprise sponsored research institute, Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS), just a few weeks ago made public the results of an impressive study of the outcome of the trend of privatisation of public services in Sweden that has been going on for over 20 years. Since SNS is often seen as an ideology-producer for the Swedish private enterprise community, it was both surprising and refreshing to read project leader Laura Hartman's impassionate summary of the study, the main result of which is that the privatisation trend can, in fact, not be shown to have lead to any gains in the effectiveness of public service (here, here). In particular, Hartman highlighted the lack of empirical support of the often mechanically repeated hypothesis that market competition in the realm of public services leads to increased effectiveness.

Not surprisingly, the results provoked debate. In fact, it seemed to create a virtual panic among the lovers of the idea of a sell-out of public services. The reason, of course, is that while the core fans of this idea support it either for libertarian reasons or for the self-interested hope of making a quick buck in the process themselves, the support of the general public of such reforms is heavily dependent on the perception of them as promoting the common good.The results are especially sensitive in view of the programme of the current Swedish right-wing government's open plans to continue and increase the pace of privatisations – repeatedly motivated by arguments in terms of making public services more effective. Nevertheless, on the SNS website, the results are clearly set out and a sketch of a continuation of the programme can be found (alas, only in Swedish).

Today, however, SNS announced that Harman's contract has been terminated "on her own request" to pursue research at the department of political economy at Uppsala University (to which she has been affiliated since before) (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here to name just a few). In the political magazine, Arena, Hartman reveals what "her own request" stands for (my translation):

When I took the job at SNS, I had a clear view of how the research should be conducted and how the presentation of the results should be undertaken. I have now come to a point when I realise that my opportunities to do what I envision are better in the university sector. [...] I believed that I would have the opportunity to present and discuss my results. I was allowed to do that at the conference [where the report was presented] but not after that.
[Interviewer:] Was this a gag order being issued?
 I don't want to comment on that. It suffices to note that I experience my opportunities to conduct and discuss my research as better when done from Uppsala University.

Could anything said between the lines be more loud and clear? And as if that was not enough, just a few hours later, long-time associate and former Director of Research at SNS, Professor of Political Science Olof Peterson, announced on his blog that he immediately severs all connections to SNS. The given reason is that (in my translation):

Internal disagreements regarding the right of researchers of SNS to present the results of their research freely. [...] On my view, it should be self-evident that SNS does not restrict this freedom of SNS affiliated researchers. However, it has now come to light that the directorship of SNS have acted in a way that violates academic freedom. Therefore, I resign my position at SNS.
In sum: what we seem to be watching is a bona fide Lysenko affair, but now in the realms of private enterprise sponsored research, rather than the communist, plan-economical original. The only difference is that the uniform of Stalin has now been replaced by the double-breasted pinstripe suit of the business executive and his spin doctors in media and politics. Stalin so much wanted his impossible five-year plans for Soviet agriculture to be feasible that he sacked and destroyed the lives of any scientist questioning the thesis of Lysenko that crops could be made to acquire hereditary features such as resistance to cold by being exposed to environmental conditions such as low temperature (which, if true, could have made Siberia bloom). The SNS directorship and its sponsors so much wants the privatisation programme to be possible to sell to the voters without lying, that it issues a gag-order for any affiliated researcher undermining that scenario.

My own conclusion is this: First, private enterprise sponsored social science research is far, far, far more of a problematic entity than has previously been acknowledged. Second, SNS must either immediately roll over about five times on this issue, lest it loses all the credibility as a serious research institutions that it has worked hard for several decades to build. Third, to all international colleagues: next time you see a Swedish research result in social science or economy, better first check that it is not ordered, bought and paid for by SNS! Fourth, Laura Hartman and Olof Peterson deserve unlimited praise for their integrity and courage. Even if you are well-established, resigning your institutional affiliation is not a light thing in the world of academia. To Olof and Laura: You give me inspiration for and hope about doing the same, should I ever be unlucky enough to find myself in such bad company as you have been cursed with.

To SNS: We all see the nakedness now. Perhaps time to resign from the imperial throne and be more honest, don't you think? Looking forward to see the announcement of an imminent reorganisation into the Private Enterprise Bureau of Ideology and Propanganda. In Swedish, Studieförbundet Näringsliv och Ideologisk Propaganda (SNIPPA).