Chronicle of Higher Ed: Its Integrity Questioned, SUNY Institute Retreats From Politically Tinged Study

Its Integrity Questioned, SUNY Institute Retreats From Politically Tinged Study

By Paul Basken, Chronicle of Higher Education

The State University of New York’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government is backing away from a politically divisive report critical of a worker’s-rights law, admitting that the industry-financed analysis has multiple major flaws that undermine its central finding.

The report, published in February, criticizes New York State’s so-called Scaffold Law, which holds contractors and property owners legally liable for on-site injuries and accidents. The analysis suffers from “really big weaknesses,” said the institute’s director, Thomas L. Gais, who added that he considers the report as not officially a product of his institute. The key analytical section of the report “is just really awful,” he said.

The Rockefeller Institute prides itself as a provider of unbiased and empirical policy analysis. Defenders of the Scaffold Law, however, have complained that the institute tainted itself by accepting an $82,000 payment from a business group with construction-industry supporters to produce the report.

The report is “junk” and “fundamentally biased,” said the Center for Popular Democracy and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, two groups representing unionized workers and immigrants.

The case has shined a spotlight on the question of whether universities and their research institutes, as declining public financing leaves them increasingly reliant on private-sector support, are able to provide policy makers with objective technical advice.

There are hundreds of such institutes at universities around the country, and it’s often possible to “predict the policy outcomes from where their support comes from,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University who writes about bias in research.

A ‘Quality-Control Issue’

Mr. Gais, a social scientist who has led the Rockefeller Institute for four years, adamantly denied there was any bias in the report on behalf of the Lawsuit Reform Alliance of New York. The alliance has long opposed the Scaffold Law, but Mr. Gais said he never expected to get any repeat business from the industry-affiliated group. “We got the money no matter what we wrote,” he said.

The report instead suffered from what Mr. Gais called a “quality-control issue,” in which a relatively new institute researcher, Michael R. Hattery, delivered it to the Lawsuit Reform Alliance without its being thoroughly reviewed at the institute.

Another major problem with the 89-page report, Mr. Gais said, lies with a section that uses a flawed statistical analysis to make the “counterintuitive” argument that New York’s worker-safety law actually leaves workers less safe.

That section’s author, R. Richard Geddes, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University, also has drawn criticism within his own institution. At least two members of the labor-studies department at Cornell wrote newspaper op-eds criticizing Mr. Geddes’s work.

One, Richard W. Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations, wrote that Mr. Geddes had “misused sophisticated statistical techniques and produced inaccurate results.” Lee H. Adler, an instructor of labor and employment law at Cornell, wrote that the episode reflects more than a century of attempts by business leaders to deprive workers of the fundamental right to sue.

Mr. Geddes emotionally denounced the criticism in an interview with The Chronicle, saying he had absolutely not been influenced by the source of money and describing his work as a state-of-the-art analysis of who actually gets injured on construction sites in New York State.

“I find that offensive, I find that deeply offensive, that they said my work is biased, after we spent hours and hours collecting the best data we could find,” Mr. Geddes said.

A Valid Concern

Among its arguments, the report compares worker-injury records in New York and Illinois, which repealed a similar worker-protection law in 1995. The study found that both accident rates and costs declined in Illinois after repeal.

The labor groups said the study’s shortfalls included a failure to take into account situations where higher union-membership rates would encourage workers to report accidents, and workplaces where greater percentages of immigrants might depress reporting statistics.

Mr. Geddes said the critics bore the responsibility of showing how such factors would substantially have affected the report’s conclusions. Mr. Hattery said he also stood by the report but recognized that the possible effect of those omissions was a valid concern that should be assessed in future studies.

Click here to read the full story by Paul Basken at the Chronicle of Higher Education.