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From its foundation in 1960 the Institute’s role has been to provide a strong, independent source of research evidence for policy and civil society in Ireland. That it would be funded by government and yet independent of government was precisely the mandate it was given. This independence means that researchers have no fear of publishing research findings that do not provide support for government policy. Great care was taken to protect the Institute’s independence in setting up and revising the Institute’s governance structures over the years. Independence, objectivity and excellence remain core values of the ESRI and its researchers.
A question which sometimes puzzles people is how the ESRI maintains its independence when so much Institute research is funded directly by government departments and agencies? Typically, following a tendering process or under a joint-programme agreement, funders come with a set of questions or issues to be examined. Institute researchers investigate these, drawing on high quality methods and relevant data. As long as the research meets the quality standard, the Institute upholds its right to publish. Funders come to the Institute for research precisely because they value high quality work, and are aware of the Institute’s independence as expressed through its policy on publication.
Sometimes funders are not happy with what emerges from the research - routinely findings crop up that run contrary to what they would like to find. For example, results sometimes raise questions about the effectiveness of a particular policy intervention. However, the ESRI’s mandate is to publish what it finds and that is what it does and this is understood by those who fund the research.
ESRI’s current research strategy identifies the areas where we concentrate our efforts. Which particular projects we undertake depends on funding. Departments and agencies differ in the extent to which they are able and willing to fund independent research on specific issues. Shortage of funding to support research is, of course, common to researchers in many fields, and not just in economic and social policy. Research on issues for which specific project-related funding cannot be found can also compete for a share of the Institute’s core resources and for research funds from outside bodies.
The wide acceptance of ESRI’s independence and objectivity stems from the quality of its work. This quality requires that papers meet objective academic standards through peer review, which involves the papers being examined and critiqued by other experts. If the paper does not meet these standards, it is not published until it has been revised, re-examined and passed fit. Notwithstanding inputs from reviewers and other colleagues, the content of each paper remains the responsibility of the individual researcher(s) and this is stated clearly on each publication.
Because of its specific policy research role, ESRI researchers concentrate on providing research evidence that is directly useful to Irish society, and on making sure that the evidence is presented to policy makers and the wider public. They also produce research papers that are published in academic journals which operate their own peer review processes.
ESRI researchers have the privilege of academic freedom in the research they undertake and in placing their results into the public domain. But their privileged access to policymakers and data carries with it a responsibility to provide the best and most objective possible evidence to inform policy. Where the evidence suggests that policy needs to change, the role of the researcher includes explaining the results to policy makers and (through the media) to the wider public in a professional and an impartial manner.
ESRI researchers are free to participate in public debate and have an excellent record in doing so. The culture, going back five decades, is that researchers generally concentrate on their own areas of specialisation, providing their expert input to public discussion. Their focus is usually on evidence from research and what it implies for policy rather than on their personal opinions. That said, many researchers regularly engage in public discussions and express opinions.
In summary - independence is the hallmark of the Institute’s work. ESRI researchers work closely with commissioning bodies during the research process but retain the independence and freedom to publish, even where the results may prove difficult for such commissioning bodies.