Whilst on our travels over the break State got to sit down with Senior Economist for the Centre for Health Policy Studies with the Fraser Institute Bacchus Barua to clear the air on what a think tank like the Fraser Institute does.
STATE: Can you explain to us what the Fraser Institute is?
BB: To be precise, the Fraser Institute is Canada’s largest and, some would argue, most influential “think-tank” – whose primary function is to measure and educate Canadians about the impact of government intervention and competitive markets.
In this sense it is essentially, to many people, an independent and apolitical organization to look toward when they’re searching for answers to important questions regarding public policy that directly affect their quality of life.
STATE: What is your role here at the Fraser Institute?
BB: Well, I’m employed here at the Institute as a Senior Economist, in its Centre for Health Policy Studies. As such, most of my work encompasses analyzing different aspects of our healthcare system, comparing it those around the world, and assessing the extent and impact of rationed healthcare services.
My “role”, however, is to identify and communicate those particular policy options that would help deliver the best healthcare to the citizens of this country.
STATE: Tell us about how you came to work at the Fraser Institute?
BB: I first began my professional relationship with the Fraser Institute in the capacity of a research intern in the fall of 2009 for Nadeem Esmail (Director, Health Policy Studies) – as part of my co-op program at Simon Fraser University – and slowly graduated to where I am today.
Oddly enough, the original posting was for the Centre for Energy and Natural Resource Studies, while the position at the Centre for Health Policy (which I eventually got) only seemed to come into existence the night before my interview. Further, at the end of my job interview I was asked whether I’d be comfortable moving from Vancouver to Calgary for 8 months – which I assented to, unhesitatingly.
This, of course, was when I had only been in Canada for a year, didn’t really know its geography, and couldn’t possibly pass up this incredible opportunity.
While I did grow to love the city while I was there, I suppose I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that Gerry Angevine (Senior Fellow, Centre for Energy and Natural Resource Studies) indicated that I should bring a shovel with me. But then, neither -30C temperature, nor the inevitability of missing the Winter Olympics in Vancouver is too large a price to pay for the prospect of working at the Fraser Institute.
That didn’t stop me from grumbling and complaining about it, though!
STATE: What exactly is a think tank, like the Fraser Institute? How does it differ from say a lobbyist group?
BB: The Fraser Institute is an independent, apolitical, non-profit organization – largely funded by charitable donations.
Unlike a lobbyist group that might focus on advocating on behalf of a particular interested party – as researchers, we focus on exploring policy options that we believe will help increase the prosperity of all Canadians.
Further, rather than argue from a political, moral, or ideological standpoint – our primary intention is to produce fact-based, peer-reviewed research that will help educate Canadians. This data is then presented to the general public and their policymakers who, now informed, are empowered to advocate on their own behalf, and at their own discretion.
STATE: How does a think tank go about influencing government policy?
BB: Different think-tanks probably do this in a variety of different ways. Some may be even be directly involved with the government – conducting research on specific issues policymakers would like to pursue.
Our thinking, however, is that true strength lies in the climate of public opinion – and thus, our best strategy, as mentioned previously, is to provide the general public and their policymakers with the data necessary for them to make informed economic decisions.
STATE: The Fraser Institute releases a number of big and influential papers. You yourself were involved in the recent release of the 2013 Provincial Healthcare Index for Canada Can you just take us through the process for producing a big report?
BB: The Provincial Healthcare Index is actually a great example of the rigor involved in producing new research for the Fraser Institute.
Taking inspiration from our earlier reports comparing international healthcare systems, we began with the simple notion that it was important for provincial governments and taxpayers to be aware of how much their respective provinces were spending on healthcare per capita, what healthcare goods they were receiving in the bargain, and whether there were lessons to be learned from other provinces that were doing this better – essentially, creating an index of value received for healthcare dollars spent – or value for money, if you will.
After conducting an extensive literature review, I was asked to present a preliminary model of my index at a brown-bag lunch for my colleagues – where I could receive feedback regarding the methodology employed, the possible obstacles I may face, and the general clarity of the report. It is important to stress here that this presentation was not only for researchers. Indeed, we invited individuals from our events department, accounting department, secretaries and assistants, etc. After all, if the report was also meant to be useful for people not specifically trained to be economists and political scientists – then it was essential to receive feedback from them!
The model was then modified to incorporate any improvements stemming from the session, and the paper was sent for both internal, and external, review by healthcare experts and academics.
It is only after passing through this rigorous peer-review process that the paper was finally ready to be published.
STATE: Staying with the 2013 Provincial Health Care, if we use that as an example, how much coverage does a report from Fraser usually receive?
BB: There are probably all sorts of impressive numbers about media hits, op-eds, and print coverage the report received – however, I think the most telling examples for this particular report involve two provincial healthcare ministers specifically responding to the report in the media.
While the Provincial Healthcare Index is a new report, our older annual publications have had a much larger impact. For example, the length of wait times for medically necessary services (studied in our Waiting Your Turn report) is often discussed in parliament upon release, parents routinely use our School Report Cards, and “Tax Freedom Day” is a concept well-entrenched in the Canadian public psyche.
STATE: What are responses usually like, or what were they like for the report you produced?
BB That’s sometimes hard to judge. Unfortunately, it’s often the voices of dissent that are the loudest, and quickest. For example, the two ministers I mentioned previously weren’t very happy with the report – but then, their provinces ended up at the bottom of the index, so I would have been very surprised if they agreed with it whole-heartedly. Several journalists did, however, take note of the neutral nature, and academic rigor, of the report – explicitly indicating that provincial ministers should certainly take its results into consideration.
It’s also often the case that studies like ours, which may often indicate the need to move away from the status-quo, always receive a fair amount of push-back from those happy to ride the wave until it crashes down upon them. Again, Waiting Your Turn is a great example of a report released, two decades ago, at a time when governments denied the existence of waiting lists for medically necessary procedures – today, as I mentioned before, its data is often quoted in parliament and used by academic researchers around the world.
STATE: As a former intern of Fraser and now Senior Economist would you have any advice for someone applying for something like Fraser?
BB: My advice would be to apply to a place where you love to come in to work – and don’t settle for anything less. When you find an institution whose values you agree with, and which gives you the unhindered freedom to pursue those projects that you truly believe will help improve the society you live in – make sure you fully express that congruence of interests to your potential employers.
STATE: Finally what do you do for fun when you’re not filling your head with numbers?
BB: Apart from voraciously reading anything involving science-fiction and fantasy that comes my way, I do spend most of my evenings focusing on my music. I used to play in a couple of grunge bands in Delhi, released an independent CD of my solo work after high-school, and am slowly getting into the music scene here in Vancouver. I suppose it’s a little odd to know that I’ve had both, an economic report discussed, and a song played on local radio in the few years I’ve been here.
I’m also slowly getting into snowboarding – but I’m afraid it’s still more of “falling down the hill with a plank of wood strapped to my feet” at the moment.