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What do we think about think tanks?

Think Tanks

By Ian Lavis on behalf of Praxity

In a ‘post-truth’ world where debate is just as often framed by emotions as by details of policy, think tanks are under attack. Are they doomed or do we need them more than ever?

These are challenging times for think tanks – the research and analysis centres which produce information intended to inform policy. Once regarded as highly credible sources of information, they are now viewed by some as irrelevant.

Many assume they have a hidden agenda and even governments in democratic countries have denounced the role of ‘expert’ thinkers and influencers.

British government minister Michael Gove, for example, summed up the changing mood towards think tanks in some quarters when he said during Brexit debates in 2016 “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”.


Fast forward two years and the credibility of think tanks seems under threat worldwide. Rosa Balfour, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the US, which describes itself as a non-partisan, non-profit research and analysis centre, says think tanks are in fact “meeting the ire of a populist, illiberal backlash”.

Writing for the online policy research platform On Think Tanks, Rosa Balfour says: “In parts of Europe, they [think tanks] are being strangled by restrictive legislation, censorship, and smear campaigns. In other parts, where democracy is not overtly threatened, their role as providers of evidence-based arguments has been delegitimised by a political context which endorses ‘alternative facts’, dismisses policy research as elite-led exercises, and reduces the space for non-partisan debate and analysis."

Have think tanks had their time?

Is the industry doomed, or is it more a question of having to adapt to or counter the post-truth world? Judging by the many thousands of think tanks in existence worldwide, the industry doesn’t appear to be doing too badly.

However, the 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index, published by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania, reveals that after a period of dramatic growth, there has been a recent decline in the rate of growth of think tanks worldwide.

The TTCSP blames this decline on multiple factors including an increasingly hostile political and regulatory environment towards think tanks, an inability to adapt to change and increasing competition from for-profit consulting firms, law firms and 24/7 electronic media.

The think tank ‘crisis’ is particularly acute in Africa due to financial instability, limited resources, high staff turnover, and insufficient or irregular funding, according to the TTCSP. And yet it could be argued this is where think tanks are needed most to provide research and analysis to help nations confront pressing twenty-first century welfare and social challenges like food and water insecurity.

Critical role

Those within the industry say think tanks are needed more than ever in an era of digital and political disruption. The US-based Wilson Center which describes itself as the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue, says: “Think tanks play a critical role in analyzing, developing, and promoting policy solutions, particularly in times of extreme disruption and change”.

James McGann, senior lecturer of International Studies at the Lauder Institute and director of the TTCSP, says think tanks are, and will be, important in helping policymakers solve global issues including looming food and water shortages. “Due to the crucial challenges that humanity faces and the interconnectedness between all nations, especially between food and water, think tanks must play a vital role in solving this dilemma, particularly in helping governments manage a finite amount of food and water, as well as helping them maintain their natural resources.”

However, the Wilson Center makes it clear there are major challenges to overcome if think tanks are to be effective. It says they “now operate in information-flooded societies where facts, evidence, and credible research are often ignored – and where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ can gain a footing. To remain relevant and impactful, think tanks and policy institutes must simultaneously pursue rigor, innovation, accessibility, and accountability more than ever before.”

What exactly is a think tank?

One of the biggest problems in terms of relevance and credibility is that the term ‘think tank’ applies to many different types of organisation, each with its own operating style, aspirations to academic standards, objectivity and thoroughness in research. The 2017 Global Go To Think Tank Index places think tanks into the following categories:​

AUTONOMOUS AND INDEPENDENT   ​Significant independence from any one interest group or donor and autonomous in its operation and funding from government.
QUASI INDEPENDENT   ​Autonomous from government but controlled by an interest group, donor, or contracting agency that provides a majority of the funding and has significant influence over operations of the think tank.
​GOVERNMENT AFFILIATED   ​A part of the formal structure of government.
QUASI GOVERNMENTAL    ​Funded exclusively by government grants and contracts but not a part of the formal structure of government.
UNIVERSITY AFFILIATED  ​A policy research center at a university.
POLITICAL PARTY AFFILIATED   ​Formally affiliated with a political party.
​CORPORATE (FOR PROFIT)  ​ A for-profit public policy research organization, affiliated with a corporation or merely operating on a for-profit basis.


And herein lies one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. How can think tanks in general be seen as objective and credible when autonomy and standards vary so much?

The ongoing battle for credibility

To compete in the post-truth world, Rosa Balfour says think tanks need to “assert the dignity and relevance of policy research”. She calls on the industry to find innovative ways to make their organisational structures more diverse and inclusive, and to adapt research methodologies to better meet the policy needs of today’s complex world.

Communication is also key. Matthew Cadoux Hudson, Communications and Publications Co-ordinator at the UK-based independent policy institute Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), says: “In an environment where political dialogue is informed by appeals to emotion and personal belief, think tanks need to change the way they engage with the public and how they communicate with governments if they want to continue to effectively shape policy”.

To stay relevant and address concerns about credibility, think tanks that are going to survive and thrive need to demonstrate the highest levels of professionalism, ethics, transparency and accountability. In particular, there should be transparency in the way they are funded and how they do their research.

Social psychologist Andrea Baertl, a research officer for On Think Tanks, says “ultimately, the public needs to know that think tanks are intellectually independent through information on who funds them, what networks they belong to, who is on their board, what affiliations their staff have and how the quality of research is ensured”.

Who can we trust?

If there’s a tunnel, there’s light at the end of it.  The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that “voices of authority” are in fact regaining credibility. Technical and academic experts are viewed as the most credible, with each seen as slightly more credible than in 2017, while government officials are seen as the least credible.

Ben Boyd, President, Practices, Sectors and Intellectual Property at Edelman, says “when government is distrusted and media no longer is perceived to serve as its watchdog, both NGOs and business can fill the role of providing reliable information about – and solutions for – the issues that people care about”.

Think tanks can fill this role too. They just need to do it in an innovative and transparent way.