Credibility- the role of transparency

9 March 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

Transparency cannot guarantee credibility for think tanks. But in many ways, it is a necessary step towards being credible. Credibility is essential: if the public does not trust an institution, its best research is unlikely to have an impact.

When reflecting on credibility, it is useful to ask about how people establish truth. Broadly, there are three standards: correspondence, coherence and consensus. Do observed phenomena correspond to the theory? Are the claims internally coherent? Does a scholarly community agree with the claims?

Transparency can play a role in all of these standards. Providing a full dataset, for example, allows people to check whether the data corresponds to the theory. Similarly, making details of the full project methodology and implementation plan available makes it possible to check whether claims are internally coherent. And cross-references to other work and funding enable people to see whether there is consensus around the issue.

Yet in other ways, we are unable to evaluate scientific method. We can fly around the world and conclude that it does not appear to be flat, but there are many other claims that we cannot verify in this way. How can we be sure about the real impact of tax policies on the economy? How can we confidently say that the quality of pre-school has an impact on teenage pregnancy rates?

Some degree of trust is involved. Claims to expertise and authority are only credible if the audience has reason to believe that researchers and analysts orient themselves around assessing facts, rather than on advocating hidden interests. With this in mind, being transparent about who funds research is critical. It makes it clear who is driving the agenda, which provides important context when interpreting evidence.

Transparency can also contribute to a more sensible debate on credibility. People can be motivated by particular interests and still be credible. Being open about our motivations (and not just with regards to funding) can contribute to a better debate. After all, all social science research has some interest and motivation behind it. (Richard Rorty has an excellent essay on this, Trotsky and Wild Orchids, that is well worth reading, on the quirks of private interest.) Being upfront about interests is better than pretending that there is a sphere of pure enquiry that is free of all motivation.

In a context of populist resurgence and widespread cynicism, developing and maintaining this trust is more important than ever. In 2014, in a draft for Transparify’s first report, a colleague wrote about a ‘crisis of credibility’ for think tanks. We cut this line because we felt it might be alarmist. In retrospect, we should have left it in. The crisis of credibility for experts is real. Too often, there is a feeling that experts are in it for themselves. Part of gaming the system against ordinary people.

Transparify’s five-star rating system provides a useful approach to rally against this crisis. It provides transparency on research funding and it does it for hundreds of think tanks. Each report we produce shows improvements in transparency, but a review in 2017 also showed slippage. It highlighted the fact that transparency is not yet routine.

This is where donors come in. Along with providing core funding to think tanks so that they can produce evidence that matters, donors can have an impact by nudging them to be transparent. This could be as easy as requiring think tanks to declared their funding publicly, through a simple page on their website. If half a dozen big donors (among them bilateral and multilateral agencies as well as large global foundations) did this, we would likely see a huge improvement in transparency of funding. This would allow us to move on to other important questions, like how to make sure research is credible.