Private institutes offer greater flexibility, but come with greater biases

Travis Knoll

Recently, a controversial study was released which claimed that  immigrants have lower IQs and that therefore we should limit immigration. Another recently released controversial study alleged that passing non-discrimination laws to protect gay employees would hurt companies’ profits and “weaken the marriage culture.” Many times, the research that produces such studies is not conducted by universities themselves, but by think tanks devoted exclusively to public policy or a political philosophy. Examples include the conservative Heritage Foundation, which employed the researcher who conducted the aforementioned IQ study, or the more progressive think tank, Center for American Progress, which is currently focused on pushing Obamacare. Public universities also conduct research and permit political engagement. But unlike private think tanks, universities are supposed to put academic inquiry before ideological advocacy.

Although each of these organizations bills itself as a “nonpartisan”  research center, their political biases are clear. So what should students make of the plethora of private institutes conducting and publishing provocative research out there? Where does the research these institutes produce meet the research produced by the traditional university model, and what are we to make of the differences between the two? 

To find answers, I visited the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture , an anonymously funded center dedicated to sociological research focused on “familial stability” and the effects of changing social values. Notable senior fellows include UT philosophy professor Robert Koons and UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus, both known for their conservative view on the academy and social issues. The latter is also known for his research on the well-being of children raised by homosexual parents. 

Despite the obvious ideological bent of these fellows, and some seemingly retrograde headlines on the website touting data commentaries  on “unsatisfying” interfaith marriages and  “faulty” mainstream  polling on support for gay marriage, not all studies conducted are necessarily guided by right-wing philosophy. A proposed project by David Gordon, research associate in economics, claims to analyze the self-perpetuating cycle of incarceration of African-American men (roughly a third can be expected to be incarcerated in their lifetime). It could be used to stereotype minorities, but if carefully conducted and  properly reviewed, it could also shed light on  counterproductive drug laws and arbitrary racial profiling. President Obama himself has discussed the importance of fathers in the African-American community, showing that incarceration’s effect on minority families is an issue that both conservatives and liberals  might want to hear more about. 

When I spoke to Andrew Litschi, director of the institute, he shied away from the label “think tank,” arguing that the center is meant to propose an intellectual and cultural “bridge” between university research and the public, not to push specific policy initiatives at the Legislature. Although Litschi said that he wanted to be “a resource” for the University, he felt that  forming his own organization gave him the flexibility to bring together interested academics from all over the country. 

Private research  institutes do have some advantages. Unpopular or niche research topics unlikely to get federal funding can be freely explored and researchers can carry out their studies with the assurance that they won’t be raked over the coals about their funding or political and philosophical motives, which are already assumed. However, while private research institutes can produce relevant and original research, their niche status or ideological affiliations  can create a deficit of credibility.  

Still, though the flexibility afforded to private institutes can spawn  interesting studies, it often allows the publication of rushed interpretations of old data. Such projects often seem to be more about provoking ideological discussions than producing deliberate research. 

Public universities, on the other hand, are not tailored to narrow interests but rather bind together various pursuits and ideologies with rigorous standards of review and transparency. When one receives federal research funds, for example, non-confidential information about the research is generally open to public inquiry. The same can’t be said for research funded through private institutes. 

And while public universities may produce research that bolsters the causes of industry and  advocacy, their primary function is the production of quality research. They are not vocational or technical schools, but institutions with a responsibility to challenge conventional wisdom and promote the free exchange of ideas across the political spectrum.

This distinction comes with responsibility. If we don’t maintain strict  review standards and transparency regarding the research carried out by our faculty and students, we will lose our credibility. If we become just another industry training ground, or worse, just another think tank at the service of political causes, we will be outstripped by private institutes, which have a clear edge on niche research and policy advocacy — even if they lack the right intentions. 

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas. Follow Knoll on Twitter @tknoll209K.