The background is as follows. I have regretted that I never wrote my memoirs of my time in Hamburg. I plan to write a multi-media text “book” and tweet the key messages. To hone my book-tweeting skills, I decided to tweet my memoirs (under the hash tag #cuimhnícinn). The chapter on the ESRI was tweeted early on January 1st. I had assumed that all Irish twitterati would be asleep, but Colm Keena was not. And then RTE called, and nothing much had happened that day, and so on.
All this is ironic for someone who has repeatedly warned against celebrity economists. And yes, the Late Late Show called too.
Among our reasons to leave are the economic prospects of Ireland, and particularly of families like ours with a triple exposure to public finances: two salaries and kids in education. I called that “10 more years of austerity”, where “10 years” really stands for “a long period”. This was apparently news to some. Although really not my area, the facts are simple. The programme for government and the deal with the Troika have that the primary deficit will be reduced to zero by 2014-5. Public debt will reach 125-135% of GDP by then, pension reserves will be depleted, and valuable state assets will have been sold. That means that, after 2015, a large share of tax revenue will go towards interest payments, debt reduction, and rebuilding of reserves – rather than to things that make life worthwhile. If debt is to be reduced to 60% GDP, then 10 more years of austerity seems fairly optimistic. I do expect, however, that the ECB will monetize part of the debt.
I also said a number of things about the ESRI. I enjoyed working there, and hope to pass to my students the things I’ve learned while there. However, I also think the ESRI should work harder on transparency and quality management. ESRI data and models should be in the public domain.
There has been no independent investigation of the accusations of racism against some ESRI staff. Indeed, ESRI management has repeatedly denied the possibility that there could be any truth in such allegations.
The ESRI is not as independent as it should be. The ESRI does not have a budget to pursue issues that no one in government wants to hear about. That is, government departments and agencies set the research agenda. That is fine in a way. Blue skies research belongs at university. The ESRI does policy-relevant research – that is, answers questions posed outsiders. However, it would be better if part of the ESRI budget would be reserved for projects identified by the opposition, by the public, and indeed by ESRI researchers (who often come across major and minor public policy mishaps but lack the resources to pursue them).
Funding agencies do not influence the conclusions that the ESRI draws.
Funding agencies do influence the conclusions that the ESRI draws attention to.
The grant-in-aid is about 1/3 of the ESRI budget. About 1/3 is international and corporate money. And about 1/3 comes in through competitive tenders from the various parts of the Irish government. The funding agencies often have a clear idea of the desired result, and award the contract to the bidder who is most likely to obtain that result. Can a bidder uphold her integrity and be loyal to her employees at the same time? One solution is to have a specialized government agency to manage research contracts. Tenders would tend be awarded on merit, recalling that pliability is not a merit.
That agency could also keep an eye on the output: Some projects never seem to reach a publishable result.
This does not require a new government body. The research managers (and their budgets) in the various government departments and agencies could be transferred to, say, Science Foundation Ireland.
As to academic freedom at the ESRI, the chronology of my contributions to this blog tells it all.