University may treat Fonterra like a munitions manufacturer

September 28th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Research funding from the dairying and soft drink industries could be declined on ethical grounds under proposals being worked through by the University of Canterbury.

The university is in the midst of a wide-ranging debate about ethical research funding – who academics should and shouldn’t accept money from, and for what research purpose.

Currently, research funding from the tobacco and armaments industries could be declined.

Some academics have argued that should extend to certain industry-funded alcohol, gambling, dairying, mining and soft drink research.

How dare industries fund research that may disagree with their own research. It must be banned.

The test of research should be does it stand up to scrutiny, and can it be published in a peer reviewed publication? But instead some academics think that anything to do with industry is evil – so they are proposing to treat Fonterra the same as an munitions manufacturer.

I don’t think there should be any limitations on who can fund research – the only limitations should be on its quality and independence.

The Helensville poll

September 4th, 2012 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

The Conservatives hired Research First to poll Helensville voters on the issue of gay marriage and gay adoption.

About 89 per cent said their MP should consult their electorate over conscience votes and vote the way voters wanted them to, it found.

While the majority did sat y they want their MP to vote as they say (no surprise), there are a few things to note about the poll. If you look at the small print on the pamphlet, it is actually a poll of both Helensville and Rodney electorates.

The full poll results are online on the Conservative Party website. It was done by Research First.

I blogged last year my criticisms of the poll done by Research First for the Conservatives in Rodney. It purported to show Craig ahead of the National candidate and had serious flaws such as mixing results from an unprompted question with a prompted question. It is a matter of record that Craig lost the seat by over 12,000 votes.

I’m pleased to say that this poll is, in my opinion, much sounder than last year’s Rodney one. In fact in some areas it is more transparent than almost any other poll report. There are also some areas you can be critical, and I’ll get into those also, but first I’ll highlight the really good stuff that Research First have done with this poll.

  1. The full report has been made available online.
  2. They disclose their call-back policy – a laudable six times.
  3. They disclose their response rate, and detail the reasons for non-response. This is an A+ level of transparency. I don’t think I have seen another NZ poll report that does this.
  4. They disclose their demographic breakdown, and what variables they weighted on.
  5. They include the full questionnaire as an appendix to the report.
  6. The question order appears to be sound, with the question on marriage vs civil unions at the beginning of the poll
So full credit to Research First for their report. In some ways, it is a model of transparency.
It is only by being so transparent, can one have full scrutiny of results of a poll. Now with that in mind, I am going to comment on a few areas, where I would have done things differently. But bear in mind that almost all polling reports will have areas where you can argue about question wording and the like. This would not be unique to Research First. I do think the Rodney poll last year was a long way short of best practice, but this poll is a huge improvement, and in some areas excellent.
But I would make the following points, in interpreting the poll.
  • The poll is of both Helensville and Rodney residents, but does not disclose the actual number of respondents in each electorate. The 355 responses have a margin of error of 5.2% but if half came from each electorate the margin of error for each is 7.5%. As it was used for a pamphlet targeting Helensville, it would be nice to have the numbers for that electorate only, and even the results for each of the two electorates if they are statistically significant.
  • The question asking if they agree or disagree “Environment, upbringing, life experiences and personal relationships all influence personal choice when it comes to sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity” is not a particularly helpful one as it mixes in sex and sexual orientation. Of course upbringing, life experiences and relationships influence your personal choices when it comes to sex. But for most people it does not influence their sexual orientation. It is best to avoid questions that list several things, with the possibility they agree with some and disagree with some. I don’t think the results to that question can be interpreted to mean anything. I personally could not answer agree or disagree to that question as it is both.
  • The question “It is ideal that adopted children be raised by a mum and a dad (ie a heterosexual couple) rather than two mums or two dads (ie a homosexual couple)” is a perfectly valid question. However I would note that this does not mean someone agreeing is against same sex couples being able to adopt. I would agree with that statement as an ideal, yet I also think same sex couples should be able to adopt if it is in the best interests of the child. So nothing wrong with that question, but be careful that it is not interpreted beyond what it said.
  • The statement “Are you aware that the proposed change will enable gay couples to adopt children as a couple under the Adoption Act 1955?” makes an assertion that is not necessarily the case. It is unclear whether the changes to the Marriage Act will enable a married same sex couple to adopt. One part of the Adoption Act refers to merely spouses, while another refers to “husband and wife”. There is a diversity of opinion on what the impact will be, and I suspect a Judge would eventually decide. So it would have been better to say “may” rather than “will”.
  • The Conservative Party pamphlet claims 89% agree that your local MP should consult their electorate and vote the way you want them to. This is wrong. The findings are 69% say they should consult and vote as the electorate says. 20% say they should consult and make up their own mind. Note that this error is not anything to do with Research First, but instead the Conservative Party.
  • I’d also make the general point that while people were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements, respondents were never asked a direct question on the Wall bill such as “Do you think your MP should vote for or against Louisa Wall’s bill which would allow same sex couples to marry”. This is not a criticism. There is no obligation to ask questions that you may not like the results of. I’m just pointing out that agreement with an assertion over civil unions and marriage is not the same thing as a more specific question on the bill.
  • This is debatable, but you could make a case for using the term “same sex marriage bill” rather than the “gay marriage” bill. Likewise the statement “If the definition of marriage is changed, as proposed by the bill, it will enable gays to adopt children as a couple under the Adoption Act 1955” is less than ideal, talking about “gays” rather than “same sex couples” or even “gay and lesbian couples”.

None of the above are show-stoppers. As I said, I’m pleased with the level of transparency, which allows a critique to be done. Alison McCulloch did a critique of polls done by Curia earlier this year.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention one other issue which occurred to me. Respondents were told up-front that the poll was on gay marriage, and this led to around 100 people saying they didn’t want to take part. This may have impacted the results a bit also, as it is more likely those with strong views on the issue will want to take part. Ideally, in my opinion, you want to tell respondents generally what the poll is about (such as saying “on a current political issue) but need to be careful not to be too specific as it may then become a bit self-selecting.

Annette stole our embryos

December 30th, 2008 at 9:05 am by David Farrar

Inaugural Health & DIsability Commissioner Robyn Stent writes in the Herald that then Health Minister Annette King changed the law in 2004 to allow the storage of body parts or bodily substances without the consent of the patient they came from, if it is for the purpose of approved research.

I’m all in favour of embryo research, but only if the parents give consent. It is shameful that Annette King nationalised their embryos to allow embryos to be stored without parental consent.

Health Research?

May 23rd, 2008 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

From Murray McCully’s newsletter:

Lobbyists Scam Health Budget
Amongst the apparent beneficiaries of yesterday’s Budget was an outfit called the Health Research Council, originally established to award grants for valuable scientific research in the health sector. In the last financial year it received nearly $70million from the nation’s taxpayers. And yesterday Dr Cullen announced that health research would be boosted by $4 million. The Council is part of a wider portfolio of science funding totalling $550 million, accorded critical review in previous editions of this newsletter. And this week it is the turn of the Health Research Council to receive such constructive scrutiny.

Members of the Health Research Council are appointed on the advice of the Minister of Health. The primary function of the Council, according to S6 of the Health Research Council Act is “to advise the Minister on national health research policy…” So the Council is, through the Minister, responsible to Parliament and it is funded through an appropriation granted by Parliament.

Last year the Health Research Council decided to approve a grant of $701,000 to a group of researchers from the Wellington School of Medicine, a branch of Otago University, to study “policymaking to reduce smoking around children. The fact that said group of researchers might accurately be described as anti-tobacco activists is underlined by the fact that the application discloses over $1.8 million in grants to members of the group for tobacco-related research over the previous three years.

The summary makes clear what the research will actually involve: “Smokefree policies can be expanded by government policies,” we are told. “So as to help advocates, this research aims to determine obstacles/opportunities within policy processes, for interventions appropriate to specific population groups.”

The subsequent detail makes it clear what the thrust of the research involves: “recorded face to face anonymous transcribed interviews will be conducted with at least 55 past/current politicians…” In addition to researching “policy statements, official advice and party policies,” the project will include “searches for relevant voting records and statements by politicians during the period from 1996 to the present. All of this, a bargain at $701,000.

So it works like this: a Research Council that is being funded by Parliament to provide quality research for Parliament in the area of health science is instead spending that money researching the Members of Parliament themselves, their speeches, their advisors and their voting records. And the purpose of this exercise is not to come up with new scientific discoveries that might benefit the health sector, but, in their own words, “to help advocates.”

So taxpayers’ money that should be advancing the health of New Zealanders by funding new scientific breakthroughs is instead funding the preparation of resource material for lobbyists about the Members of Parliament who gave them the money in the first place. Which will presumably be useful because those same lobbyists will also be able to lobby for increased health science funding which can then be diverted into further lobbying. Which of course, is what our foolish Government has just done to the tune of $4 million a year. Isn’t that just the scam of the century?

So basically this was a $700,000 grant paid to anti-smoking activists for them to research on how they can be more successful activists!!

I’d like to get a grant from the Health Research Council so I can interview people on how I could be a better blogger!

There have been other examples in the past of how the Government funds lobby groups to lobby Parliament. It is quite simply wrong. Lobby groups should not be taxpayer funded for their lobbying. It is fine to be funded for other activities but it is the thin end of a corruption wedge to have the Government fund lobbying of MPs.

Interesting science investments

April 21st, 2008 at 8:08 pm by David Farrar

From last week’s McCcully newsletter:

The Government’s gimmicky “Fast Forward Fund” science announcement has placed the Election Year spotlight on the whole area of science research and development.  There will now be greater interest in the National Party’s response closer to the election.  But what a pity that more focus has not been given to ensuring that we get value for money out of the existing budget.

The word ‘science’ will no doubt conjure up pictures of pasty-looking individuals in white coats shuffling around laboratories with Bunsen burners and test tubes. But a quick look at some of the projects currently being funded out of the Science/Research budget suggests that such is not the case.

Take, for example, a $96,000 grant for a study of Boganology.  No, this is apparently not a poorly selected term for some exciting new microbial organism. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a study of bogans. That will really get our export industries humming.

Then there’s the interesting little number entitled “More than Bricks and Mortar,” a study of social networks amongst homeless people.  All of that for a modest $795,000 (no, no typographical error – $795,000 out of the SCIENCE fund).

And how about a study of “The impact of economic shocks on the well-being of New Zealanders”.  A snip at $600,000.  All to ascertain the previously unknown and obviously elusive truth that economic shocks are bad for people’s well-being.

But for studies into the blindingly obvious the prize would have to be awarded to the report “How do positive events lead to greater happiness and wellbeing?” A modest $600,000 experiment that clearly involved giving someone a $600,000 grant and checking that he or she was very very happy indeed.

There is, of course, the usual display of rampant political correctness: a $427,000 grant for a “Dictionary of Loanwords in the Maori Language Newspapers”.  A $495,000 study of “The Impact of Sound Change on the Rhythm of Maori”.  And a $955,000 study “Ecosystem Services Benefits in Terrestrial Ecosystems for Iwi”, a report that will obviously shoot New Zealand immediately to the international forefront in this critical area of scientific endeavour.

That’s right folks. This is cash out of the SCIENCE budget we are talking about here.  Cash that has been confiscated from taxpayers under the pretence of investing it in maintaining world leadership in our primary industries.  Makes you yearn for a few more test tubes and Bunsen burners, doesn’t it?

I hope the good farmers of NZ check carefully what the Fast Forward Fund will actually be spent on!

Oram on Fast Forward

March 16th, 2008 at 1:30 pm by David Farrar

Rod Oram writes with scepticism on Fast Forward:

Instead, the government shelved the report, and has now unveiled Fast Forward, the latest in its many, shifting, inadequately executed attempts at economic transformation. It is a big slug of money with no under-pinning strategic plan.

Given the primary sector’s lack of strategic vision, there is every danger that users of the Fast Forward fund will keep dragging it back to incremental projects that play to the sector’s historic focus on commodities.

And there are plenty of other risks too, such as a dominance of the government funding by dairying in general and Fonterra specifically, of tensions between competing companies and of political uncertainty.

I’ve also heard from industry sources, that dairy will be a dominant funder, and that there is no way in hell they will be paying for research in non dairy areas, as the Government has been suggesting.

Only $20 milllion in year one

March 14th, 2008 at 10:38 am by David Farrar

As I predicted the Government is using a capitalised fund to try and talk big figures like $2 billion of research spending. But John Key and Bill English have been calling for the actual details of projected capital flows, and spending.

NZPA this morning quote Jim Anderton:

He acknowledged that due to its gradual buildup the fund might only spend $20m in its first year, matched by $20m from industry.

Wow that is so less sexy than $2 billion. Hell it is 2% of it.

The Government should release the full capital and operating budgets for each of the 15 years it says it will exist for, rather than hide behind press releases.

Pastoral and Food Research Fund

March 11th, 2008 at 3:03 pm by David Farrar

NZPA has a story on the research fund announcement. The amount has been confirmed as $700 million but this is a capital injection which at 7% cost of interest is effectively $49 million annual in terms of expenditure. Still significant but around 0.1% of Government expenditure.

The funding is expected to be matched by industry contributions which is sensible.

I’ve heard on the grapevine that official advice to the Government was not to put the money into a dedicated capital fund, as this sort of jam jar approach removes the ability of Governments to consider quality of investment in future. Some OIAs will be revealing.

Also the rather unusual references to food and pastoral is because the Greens are campaigning against the Dairy Industry as being polluters, so they left Dairy off the propoganda.

Also worth noting that a ballpark estimate of *current* research and development industry funding is $130 million – via DairyNZ, Meat & Wool NZ, Fonterra etc. So this package, while very welcome, should be seen in context of current investment.

As I said this morning – greater R&D can make a real difference to NZ’s productivity and economic growth.  So the announcement is a good one, even though it should have been done ages ago, rather than wait for the election campaign.

The Food and Pastoral Research Fund

March 11th, 2008 at 7:14 am by David Farrar

The Herald previews today’s announcement of a new research fund for the pastoral and food industries.

Details are not yet known, but on the face of it investing in research is a good thing to do. That is potentially a useful contributor to increasing productivity and economic growth.

One beneficial outcome would be research which leads the way to have less methane emissions in the diary industry, as this would reduce out Kyoto liability.  One has to ask of course why didn’t the Government establish this research oh around seven or eight years ago when it confirmed Kyoto, instead of a few months before its third term ends.

The other thing which isn’t clear to me, is why it needs to be a dedicated fund, rather than merely an increase in annual funding.  The simple answer is the political one – because $500 million into a capital fund sounds far more sexy than announcing and extra $35 million a year in research funding. So when you hear the big numbers, remember that is capital, not expenditure.

Cullen also is probably desperately trying to reduce the cash surplus, so he can attack National’s tax cuts as unaffordable, while his own tax cuts will magically be affordable and non-inflationary