Thursday 19 September 2019

Daniel McConnell: A fearless whistleblower or a disgruntled crank?

The ESRI and Richard Tol are at war since the economist's bitter departure, writes Daniel McConnell

It was a most bizarre image. The lead story on the main evening news on RTE showed a scruffy, long-haired foreigner packing up his house to move to England.



This same man starkly warned that despite cuts of over €24bn in government spending since 2008 Ireland faces another decade of austerity.

But most controversially, Richard Tol, non-conformist voice and energy economist, also had some harsh words for his former employers and colleagues in the State's economic think tank, the Economic Social and Research Institute (ESRI).

During that RTE interview, he called into question the organisation's independence and condemned it for a lack of transparency.

However, online -- his favoured medium -- Tol went for the jugular.

Over a 48-hour period, the 42-year-old Dutch academic made a host of serious allegations into how the ESRI operates, about its transparency, its relationship with Government and how it is funded.

Today, the ESRI hits back very strongly at the various allegations made by Tol online and during an interview with this newspaper. It vehemently denies the failings alleged by Tol, rejecting his outlook almost entirely. "The allegations made by Richard Tol are wholly unsubstantiated."

His criticisms of the ESRI on television were somewhat muted and restricted, no doubt by the station's lawyers, and Tol himself is bemused that his departure was given so much prominence. "It is a slow news day if the lead story is the hairy guy packing a box," he tweeted.

But it was on Twitter that Tol made the most serious allegations about the organisation.

He accused it of being a xenophobic and nepotistic body which is caught in a timewarp using antiquated technology. He also stated that he was the fifth senior person to leave the institute, implying cultural and endemic problems at the ESRI.

"It was funny to hear academics complain about distant threats to academic freedom. At the ESRI, we were muffled," he tweeted.

"The wife said: The ESRI reflects all that is good and bad about Irish society. She is right," he wrote a short time later.

For those left behind in the ESRI, Tol is a trouble-making crank who has sought to wash his dirty laundry in public.

For others, in a country which has a shameful record of treating whistleblowers poorly, Tol was a welcome dissenting voice holding up a mirror to reveal our flaws as well as our strengths.

In the wake of his outbursts online, the Sunday Independent spoke to Tol to try and see if he would elaborate on the serious allegations he made about the state's economic think tank.

According to Tol, the ESRI has many faults and many positives. The faults, he says, are incredibly serious and strike to the core of its credibility. He calls into question its independence and its transparency.

"Transparency is most important and at the ESRI the models used for our analysis is not transparent at all. The way it is, you aren't sure who contributed what to a particular paper; accessibility to information is not there. This is one of the most serious issues affecting the ESRI," he said.

I ask him about independence and academic freedom.

Tol detailed his often fractious relationship with his superiors within the ESRI, and said that clear pressure was brought to bear on him and his fellow researchers by the director of the ESRI, Frances Ruane, to keep "politically unacceptable" messages suppressed.

"You work on the basis of professional integrity. In the ESRI you are not supposed to talk outside your area of expertise. That is perfectly acceptable. However, in the last two years or so there was quite strong pressure from the director to keep messages out of the media that are not politically acceptable or that might upset council members or funders."

He said that he had fallen foul of Ruane's instructions and was disciplined as a result.

"The ESRI is supposed to be an academic institution,

where you can speak on the basis of evidenced-based analysis. Disciplinary measures have been taken. Pressure came in the form of conversations, emails and letters. Such measures have been taken against me. I have had many conversations with the director, so my comments would not have come as any surprise to her," he said.

In response, the ESRI said: "ESRI researchers are free to participate in public debate. There are no restrictions on ESRI staff members discussing their research in whatever forum they deem appropriate. Indeed, research staff members have participated in wide-ranging discussions in many media outlets."

The Sunday Independent has obtained a copy of the institute's protocols for publishing material, and researchers are subject to a host of detailed instructions in how to "disseminate" information to the public.

Researchers must run press releases by the director or her nominee before release, and opinion pieces for national publication in a newspaper must be cleared by a colleague, head of division or the director before being submitted. Researchers are permitted to upload material to certain websites like the Irisheconomy.ie without clearance from superiors if it is in their field of expertise.

"Staff at the ESRI know there is a policy about the relaying of information and are expected to adhere to that policy. If they don't, disciplinary measures are utilised, and were in the case of Richard Tol," the ESRI spokeswoman said.

Tol was also critical that websites such as Twitter and Facebook were blocked for staff by the ESRI, reflecting an attitude toward technology more suited to the 1990s.

Tol's statements about xenophobia and nepotism are the most controversial.

He alleges that within the ESRI, those from Ireland were in someway treated above those from foreign countries, which impacted on people's career prospects.

He said: "There was a hierarchy within there. It was native Irish first, then English, then European, then others. This impacted on how fast you got promoted."

The ESRI has strongly refuted any suggestion of favouritism, saying it has staff from many nationalities currently employed there. It stated it has fully developed human resources policies and such a scenario just simply couldn't occur.

Tol went further, alleging that racist complaints made by staff toward colleagues were "ignored" by the director and by the council of the ESRI.

"Some people made racist remarks toward their colleagues. Complaints about racism and such racist remarks were ignored by management and even the council of the ESRI. It shouldn't happen. It wasn't racism, say white versus black, but it was racist comments directed at colleagues. It is totally unacceptable. Just because it is more common in Ireland doesn't make it right," he said.

"With regard to Professor Tol's comments on xenophobia and racism, similar allegations were made in the recent past by Professor Tol when they were fully investigated and found to be groundless," an ESRI spokeswoman said.

She said the ESRI had an employment equality policy and a code of business conduct for employees in numerous areas, including racism. These policies are brought to the attention of all members of staff. Complaints are dealt with under the grievance policy and procedure agreed between management and staff.

On his allegation of nepotism, Tol said this related to the hiring of "friends or allies" by powerful people within the organisation, irrespective of their abilities.

"Some of the more powerful people seem to have the right to appoint their friends to positions. It was easy to spot when you looked at the publication records, who the more productive ones are."

In response, the ESRI said: "There is no basis for his comments on nepotism. All new appointments at the ESRI are made on the basis of public advertisement. The ESRI uses fully open and transparent procedures for appointments and promotion of research staff to ensure that these are made on merit. Interview boards always include an outside expert to ensure the independence and transparency of the process. The recommendations of the interview board must be approved by the ESRI council."

Opinion within Irish academia about Richard Tol's departure to the University of Sussex is mixed, with some, like Colm McCarthy of this newspaper and UCD, describing him as a "big loss to ESRI".

He wrote: "Best of luck Richard".

Others were less kind. Stephen Kinsella, an economist at the University of Limerick who moderated a discussion on the influential Irisheconomy.ie website, said the opinions expressed were "very polarised."

"Richard Tol had the ability to be dismissive and condescending of other people's work, especially in the area of environmental economics," wrote a contributor named Mr Rudgelift.

"Richard seems to have annoyed some and said some extreme things and I had to delete some of the more personal attacks on him. But from my point of view, I always regret the loss of such a contrarian voice," added Kinsella.

Sunday Independent

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