Public Interest Research

What is Public Interest Research.png

Taken from an address by David Robertson to the OPIRG Congress, Waterloo, March 1978. Some of the language here is outmoded, but the central ideas are part of our living tradition at OPIRG.

Over the course of the last decade or so, the question of science 4nd research has been seriously addressed by a good number of critical thinkers. This concern and activity has given rise to countervailing forces within the mainstream of scientific thought and the emergence of phrases such as science for the people, radical science,, participatory research, action research and public interest research.

The qualifying adjectives testify to the problematic nature of the word research. In a typical dictionary definition research means the “scholarly investigation and study aiming to adding to the sum of knowledge in some specific branch.” In this, research, both in its technical and social expressions, has become the preserve of experts—and experts, in typically expert fashion, are performing what amounts to an essentially administrative task.

Although “research” and “public interest research” may both be performing the tasks of problem posing and problem resolution, the similarity ends with the words. The way that we pose problems and the way we struggle for resolution is very different from the research that is the domain of experts.

In fact, it would be more accurate for us to talk about social investigation rather than research. We are not interested per se in adding to the sum of knowledge—knowledge for the sake of knowledge has little place in OPIRG. Instead our Investigations are goal-directed: they imply action. In this sense, our research is a politically-motivated and directed undertaking both in terms of
the problem posing and the problem resolution stages. It is not neutral or value-free—-but then again no research is either neutral or value-free.

Typically the process of research follows from problem definition, to hypothesis formation, to instrument construction, to data collection, and finally to data interpretation. In every stage of this process choices are made and values are expressed.

In an engineering school the choice between developing a thinner metal alloy for automobiles as opposed to designing safe cars has more to do with political valuations than it has with the nature of engineering research. In a research department of a pharmaceutical company the choice between developing a new synthetic “me-too” drug as opposed to inve6tlgating the natural therapeutic properties of an herb, has more to do with political valuations than it does with the nature of chemistry research.

Research is always and by logical necessity based on moral and political valuations In OPIRG, unlike academe, we axe simply obliged to account for our values explicitly. We should not be concerned that public interest research is neither neutral nor value-free; our only concern should be its reliability and its integrity. The Federal Drug Administration in the U.S. reviewed studies submitted to prove the safety of certain chemical additives and discovered that the data in some of the studies was falsified, As a Public Interest Research Group that is what we will never do.

Having said this I would like to outline four of the most Important features of public interest research. These Include Its expository nature, its documenting style, its analytic perspective and its motivating, interest:

Public interest research Is expository Insofar as it brings out Into the open what was otherwise hidden or only partially revealed. In this way public interest research relates to Ursula Franklin’s notion of knowledge as common property. That is to say: knowledge Is what we as people hold in common and what we can share. However, In contemporary society knowledge is not common property; Instead we live under the cloak of knowledge monopoly. This monopolization of knowledge is preserved and maintained to the degree that information which belongs In this public domain Is held in private by the state or the private sector. When information is made public it is presented as discrete and scattered units of data, which renders It meaningless. Public interest research Is an attempt to break down this knowledge monopoly. Two good examples of the expository nature of public interest research are OPIRG’s corporate profile of Weston’s and the mercury poisoning tabloid, Quicksilver and Slow Death. The attempt by the executives of Weston’s to block the publication of the Weston chart is a clear indication of an attempt to privatize knowledge. Similarly, as Quicksilver has Illustrated, the manner in which the Ontario government presented information on mercury pollution was a deliberate attempt to mislead, thereby preventing people fro“putting It all together”.

Public Interest research is documentary. It compiles and presents factual evidence. Here It is important to say a few words about the nature of factual evidence. For OPIRG, factual evidence refers to soft as well as hard data. Hard data Is the explicitly testable—the facts and figures. Soft data Is the experiential. The lived experience, opinions; feelings and understandings of those involved (for example, the natives of White Dog and Grassy Narrows Indian reserves, who were affected by the mercury poisoning of their
traditional fishing grounds). This is where public interest research borrows from journalism—not the naivete of the human interest story, but the awareness of people coming to grips with the problems that confront them.

Public interest research Is analytic. It goes beyond exposing and documenting facts. It provides a perspective, an analytic framework. For instance, I don’t know how many people saw the CTV Report entitled “The Failing Strategy”. The programme dealt with the chemical contamination of our food and did a reasonable job of documenting the problem—-both its urgency and Its magnitude.
However ’the programme failed to explore the “why”. In the absence of an analytic framework it left Its viewers with Dr. Morrison of the Health Protection Branch asserting that the problem comes down to society’s basic values and willingness to take risks. It ended with the words: “There are a lot of things we don’t know because we’re just on the edge of scientific knowledge.’ Here we have a documentary without an analytic framework, which relies instead on conventional wisdom, and leaves us with the notion of Individual culpability and reliance on the experts to provide the necessary answers. That is why public interest research must present Its documentation within an analytic framework that roots our discussions within a political-economic context. We must recognize the political nature of social activities, whether that be in a field of seemingly neutral endeavour such as standard setting, in the more obviously political field of government-business partnership.

As such, a public Interest analysis must deal with the question of power, Its constellations, Its exercise, its influence and its prerogatives. For public interest research the question of power is central to any analysis. Power should be dealt with both In its broad economic formations and also in the mechanisms and structures by which It is mediated.

Finally, public interest research is motivating. It has as its goal: change. It has as its message: action. It is therefore important that PIR develop in such a way that it collapses the traditional split between research and action and constitutes In its place a model of action research that is directly connected with people’s efforts to preserve and change their life support systems.