Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Who Wouldn't Want The Best Information?

You are an official in the government making important decisions about public policy. This is serious stuff. Do your work well and many people will benefit. Screw up and they will suffer needlessly.

So what's the one thing you will demand before you make decisions? Knowledge, of course. Whatever your field is - medicine, economics, defence, whatever - you will want to consult independent experts and read up on the latest research. Only then will you be able to make informed decisions.

That's obvious. Only a fool would do things any other way.

Now, I'm not saying Stephen Harper is a fool, but it is a fact that he and his ministers not only do not ensure they are fully informed before making decisions, they actively suppress the means by which policy makers can become fully informed. One may extract a logical conclusion from this fact if one wishes. Just don't say I did.

The latest demonstration? A publication produced and circulated by the Centre for Criminology at the University of Toronto.

It's called "Criminological Highlights." Most people working in criminal justice policy know and treasure it.

There are more than 100 Englishlanguage academic journals publishing research on crime and criminal justice policy. Even if policy makers and others working in criminal justice had access to them all - and they don't, because subscriptions to academic journals cost a fortune - they would have to read them all day, every day, just to keep from being washed away by the torrent of information.

So 15 researchers do it for them. They follow every journal. They judge every paper. They put together a short list of 25 and then, after much discussion, they whittle it down to the eight that will be featured in "Criminological Highlights." "We pick the ones we think are both high-quality research and which we think would be interesting to policy makers," says U of T criminologist Tony Doob. "And then we write the summaries. So it's a labour-intensive process."

"Criminological Highlights" is read avidly by officials in the federal and provincial governments, as well as judges, police officers, lawyers and academics. It even circulates across borders, with people in some 35 countries subscribing.

Total cost of production and distribution: $25,000 per year.

In government terms, that's chump change. It wouldn't put a coat of paint on Tony Clement's gazebo. And so, quite reasonably, the federal department of justice has paid that bill since 1997.

Or rather, it used to pay that bill. The latest contract to fund "Criminological Highlights" ended in May. It was not renewed. Why? Formally, no one knows. The government didn't actually turn down the application for renewal. It simply didn't respond. Doob called, repeatedly, but he was brushed off.

So it's a mystery. But suspicious minds might think a March 14, 2010 Canadian Press story had something to do with it.

"The federal Justice Department pays to help publicize leading criminal justice research that frequently discredits the Conservative government's 'tough-on-crime' agenda," it reads, before citing example after example. All of which was accurate. And awkward, if you happened to be the Conservative justice minister.

At the time that article appeared, "Criminological Highlights" was in the first year of a two-year contract. That contract ended in May. And so did funding for "Criminological Highlights."

Coincidence? Maybe. I suppose. But I'd bet the cost of painting Tony Clement's gazebo it's not.

Happily, this latest attempt by the federal government to keep policy makers ignorant has been stymied.

Months after the contract with the federal government had expired, the Centre for Criminology asked the government of Ontario if it would fund the publication. It agreed.

In a letter confirming the new funding, Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley wrote that "it's important for those responsible for criminal justice policy to be aware of recent research on crime and criminal justice systems."

Only a fool would disagree.

POST SCRIPT: I called the federal department of justice to ask why it refused to renew the Centre for Criminology's funding. A spokesperson responded: The application "was not rejected by Justice Canada. Rather, it is our understanding that the Centre secured funding from the Government of Ontario."

That sound you hear is George Orwell groaning in his grave.