Do think-tanks matter?

This month, as our use of colour suggests, something special. Thirty years ago " April 11, 1972, to be exact " the letters patent of a new Canadian research institute were filed. The Institute for Research on Public Policy " L’Institut de recherche politique, as it was known for its first 20 years, later L’Institut de recherche en politiques publiques " was in the first instance an inspiration of the federal government. The idea for it had been announced in the first throne speech of the government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. What more appropriate initiative from a prime minister who in his own credo stressed reason over passion than to set in motion a new research institute? The original proposal was then fleshed out by Ronald Ritchie in a 95-page report submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office in December 1968, just 15 weeks after the Speech from the Throne. It’s not just the Internet generation that knows how to work quickly!

Four years later " not everything was faster then, it seems " the Institute came into being. Though its genesis was in Ottawa, and the federal government provided both seed money and the promise of matching grants, the Institute was to work at arm’s-length from government and concern itself with policy at all levels of government in all areas of the country. Thanks to the leadership and fund-raising acumen of John Black Aird, IRPP’s second chair, matching dollars from the private sector, foundations and the provinces established a healthy core endowment, which over the years has provided the Institute with the great luxury of genuine independence.

Three decades on " May 28, 2002 " friends of the Institute, including Her Excellency the Governor General, were to gather in Ottawa at the Museum of Civilization to celebrate and reflect on the IRPP’s 30 years and to honour five individuals, Ronald Ritchie included, who have made exceptional contributions both to the IRPP and to the conduct of public policy in Canada. Beside Mr. Ritchie, the other honourees were Gordon Robertson, the Institute’s President from 1980-84; Tom Kent, founding editor of this magazine; Claude Ryan, journalist, politician and frequent participant in Institute functions; and Michael Pitfield, who was one of the Institute’s original trustees.

Birthdays are occasions for celebration, reflection and anticipation. This special double issue of Policy Options provides a little of each. To mark the festive side of the occasion, we have both indulged ourselves in the aforementioned colour printing and have gone a little beyond our usual length. One doesn’t judge a book by its colour, and policy analysis, in particular, stands or falls by its content, not its appearance. But after 22 years of very grey pages, it’s fun to make a splash. I hope we’ll have the chance to do it again before 2024, even if our accountant advises otherwise.

For reflection on the Institute’s first 30 years, we have a number of items:

  • Interviews I had the pleasure of doing with Messrs. Ritchie, Ryan, Robertson, Kent and Pitfield and also with Monique Jérôme-Forget, the longest-serving President of IRPP and the one who brought the Institute through the difficult years of the early 1990s.
  • Two dozen pages of excerpts from the Institute’s collected works, some prescient and trenchant, others less so, but fun still, especially in retrospect. Thanks are due to the Institute’s Brian Fitzgerald for his exhaustive and enthusiastic archival work.
  • And, finally, a list " in exceedingly small type, I’m afraid! " of every study the Institute has ever published, at least insofar as our hard-working team of researchers (consisting of Stéphane Baillie and Brigitte Létourneau) was able to ascertain.

Finally, for anticipation, we offer a number of articles in the usual Policy Options mould: accessible pieces in plain language on a wide variety of policy issues, each looking resolutely forward. Yves Rabeau concludes his discussion (begun in our March issue) of the effects of the Internet revolution on governments. Éric Montpetit asks whether Canada’s policy on stem cell research policy is really as moderate as many commentators seem to believe. Alasdair Roberts does a statistical analysis of requests under the Freedom of Information Act for documents from Human Resources Development Canada and finds that if you’re in the media or the political opposition you wait longer for an answer. John Grant explains the details of Ontario’s electricity deregulation, which took place May 1 and, as we went to press, was still underway. And Bruce Hicks proposes a subsidy system that might get Canadians back to the ballot box in larger numbers than they turned out in in the 1990s.

Beyond celebration, reflection and anticipation, in this culture 30th birthdays have an added component. They’re often the occasion for existential questioning. Thirty already?! In fact, as I sat down to draft this column there arrived on my desk (landing just next to my desktop) a new book from McGill-Queen’s University Press: Do Think Tanks Matter? by Donald E. Abelson of the University of Western Ontario. Professor Abelson concludes that in the end it is very hard to say, a judgement he concedes may be disappointing to ”œthose looking for a definitive answer to the question” his title poses.

Judging from my own brief experience as an editorial pages editor operating at the periphery of the national policy process, think-tanks themselves don’t necessarily matter, but facts certainly do. Facts are stubborn things, as John Adams said. If Éric Montpetit is correct that the United Kingdom has much closer regulation of human bioengineering than Canada does, and our policy is actually immoderate by comparison, that fact will eventually impose itself on the public debate. If, as Alasdair Roberts concludes in his piece on access to information, there is a double standard in the speed with which HRDC processes requests for information, that fact must ultimately be faced by the federal government. If, to take a notable example from a recent IRPP study by Robert Baril, Pierre Lefebvre and Philip Merrigan, Quebec’s system of $5-a-day daycare mainly benefits families whose income is above the median in the province, that fact is bound, in time, to influence the public debate.

Do think-tanks matter? If think-tanks are in the business of digging up facts " stubborn, spin-resistant facts " then, yes, think-tanks matter. (Think-tank magazines, too!) In recent decades, Canadian governments at all levels have built up an impressive capacity to do research. But governments, especially long-incumbent governments, are not always as conscientious as they might be in digging up inconvenient facts. For that we need independent institutions like universities, newspapers, interest groups and think-tanks.

Policy Options came along in IRPP’s eighth year and has now been part of the Institute for more than two-thirds of its life. Subscriptions aside, IRPP pays all our bills. Even so, following in a tradition established by Tom Kent, the magazine has always operated at a slight remove from the Institute. Successive IRPP Presidents, not least the current one, have generously honoured that tradition. In gratitude for this impressive example of intellectual generosity, it’s a pleasure for the magazine to doff its cap and help celebrate the Institute’s 30th anniversary. Long may we both thrive!