Editorial: Think Tanks? No Thanks

Graphic: Morag Rahn-Campbell

There’s no denying it—Concordia has been going through a series of big changes over the past few years.

When the Quebec Liberal Party was elected in 2014, they immediately began slashing the budgets of universities across the province. At Concordia, the cuts equaled over $35 million.

The next year, Concordia released an ambitious, nine-point, “Strategic Directions” plan. Point number one on that list was “Double Our Research.” How were they planning on doing so after such drastic budget cuts?

The answer is starting to become clear. This week, we reported on how the Montreal Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies may be transitioning from a research institute to a think tank.

MIGS was never particularly effective as a research institute. Their last big project was in 2009, with a report called The Will to Intervene, which aimed to operationalize the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine—a doctrine that argues that states should militarily intervene to prevent human rights abuses.

Despite not being prolific in research, MIGS has proven effective at something else—lobbying. Various recommendations presented in The Will to Intervene were adopted by the Obama administration, and the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine was used to justify American bombing campaigns in Libya in 2011—an intervention that helped to further destabilize the region.

In the years since, MIGS has done very little other than hold $600 per person workshops and engage in lobbying. The research institute has conducted very little serious, peer-reviewed academic research. With their transition to a think tank, it’s unclear how that will change.

Think tanks are different than research institutes in that there are very few actual guidelines on how they ought to operate. Directors of think tanks are not required to be academics, and there is no requirement for how much research they are actually required to perform. It’s a wild west of private funding and murky connections to power-players in the world.

MIGS won’t be the only think tank on campus. In their Strategic Directions document on doubling research, Concordia outlines how it hopes to create a “network of think tanks” which would draw “intelligently on the advisory input of stakeholders.” We can see how this jargon plays out in real life by looking at Concordia’s first think tank—the Aviation Think Tank, set up last September.

The university makes it clear, in the press release announcing the creation of the think tank, that research conducted will be “for the benefit of the aviation industry and its diverse public and private stakeholders.”

An advisory committee will decide what research projects are conducted at the Aviation Think Tank. That advisory committee is made up of James Cherry, the president and CEO of Aéroports de Montréal, and Pierre J. Jeanniot, former director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. François Bouilhac, president of COMREL International, an international affairs consulting firm, will also serve as executive director for the think tank.

The only faculty member who seems to be involved in the administration of this think tank is a management professor from the John Molson School of Business, Isabelle Dostale, who will serve as their academic director. The other Concordia constituent is Graham Carr, vice-president of research and graduate studies.

Despite all this, the press release says that the “think tank will be independent and impartial.” Maybe we’re missing something, but we don’t see how impartiality can be possible when the managers of this think tank have direct, material ties to the industries they’re researching.

We shouldn’t privatize our research. If the aviation industry needs to do research, they should be hiring employees to do it, not using labour gained from the Concordia community. The research we do at Concordia through our labour should be done for the public good, not only for the benefit of private industries.

Between the think tank we already have and the research institute that behaves like a think tank, one looks to advance the interests of one of the most polluting industries in the world, and the other engages in promoting military intervention worldwide. If this is the direction that think tanks are going to take at Concordia, then you can count us out.

It shouldn’t be surprising, really. The nature of think tanks is that, because they rely on private donations—which come mostly from the wealthy—the interests they serve will be the interests of power. Whether that means promoting war or helping the industries destroying the earth, those interests are irreconcilable with the public good.