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How important are the source and the motivation to pursue an idea?

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, argues that think tanks (many, not all) have become PR fronts for corporations and millionaires with pre-set positions and views. The article can be found here:

Millionaires and corporations are using tax breaks to help sway public opinion: Rightwing thinktanks profess a love of freedom, but their refusal to reveal who funds them is deeply undemocratic.

This article reflects on an issue also addressed by Adam Curtis in his post The Curse of Tina that deals with the way in which the most famous (and original modern) British think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, was set up: he would argue, as a PR initiative. 

I would argue that it is not only corporations and millionaires but also governments, foundations, and NGOs (who may be more on the ‘left’ of things) and who employ (subcontracting or providing grants) think tanks in developed and developing countries to advocate for Aid and to help implement policies defined and designed not by the think tanks but by someone else. As I have said before, the problem is that this reduces the spaces that think tanks have to think and be original.

It is interesting that this is what George Monbiot has picked-up on (besides the fact that not enough is known about who funds them) because I do not think this is something that I had ever considered in attempting to define think tanks.

This makes me think that think tanks ought to have and make use of both the autonomy and agency to identify, use, develop, and pursue the ideas that their own impartial (yet inevitably value-informed) judgement recommends. This is, after all, how think tanks present themselves. Impartial, independent, entrepreneurial, etc. They pursue, in theory, the ideas that they, after careful research and analysis, believe in.

The original source of the idea may be outside the organisation but the think tank must have chosen it freely, after careful consideration of others. This is what Monbiot’s critique appears to imply.

And what about the motivation to pursue the idea -to transform it into policy? Again, one could question an organisation’s advocacy or promotion of an idea (a policy or programme) that it did not develop itself. This would be more akin to the role of a consultancy offering its services to different clients who, by and large, know what they want but do not have the staff and specialised resources to bring it about.

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  1. This is an interesting debate on source and motivation to pursue an idea. I work for a think tank in Kenya which prides in setting the policy agenda in Kenya. However, the most crucial thing that can ensure the sustainability of the activities of a think tank like ours is funding. There are think tanks that depend on donor agencies for core-funding. These will do well because of no perceived interest in advising policy-makers and implementers. However, as time goes by, slowly by slowly, the dependence in donor funding for core research activity diminish. In such instances, the think tanks are forced to look for alternatives for funding to continue with their core activities. This has seen think tanks engage in consultancy activities, with agencies which include even the governments themselves. Now, these consultancies are not value-free. The consulting agency has expectations and gives demands to the consultant. The consultants do not set the policy agenda, and in most instances, research is geared to a particular policy in mind, rather than evidence out of a research used to feed into policy. This is the tragedy of policy-research and policy-making in the context of a majority of the developing countries.

    Another critical issue that needs to be addressed is the freedom of agenda-setting by government think tanks. How free are the government-funded think tanks in setting their research agenda? What is the level of political influence and how does this impact on the research findings? Will the government continue to maintain research staff who give research findings that do not conform to prioritised government policy agenda? It means that for the government-sponsored think tanks, they will have no motivation at all to ‘think’ beating the logic in the very definition of the term ‘think-tank’ and reminding me of an earlier post in this blog about someone who worked in a think tank and didn’t need to do any thinking.

    In identifying the source of information, we must also be guided by the ability to obtain the same information from those sources. Critical in this aspect is the credibility of the information source. There are think tanks that are associated with particular political parties and their policy prescriptions are more or less a microcosm of the policy positions of the parties that they are aligned to. These kind of think tanks usually get it difficult to operate in likely situations of a political party of the radical view getting into power. I remember some debate doing the rounds at the IDS Sussex when I was a Visiting Research Student there in 2009 and the then Shadow Secretary of State in-charge of International Development, Andrew Mitchell MP (now Secretary of State for the same portfolio) delivered a lecture on the state of the Conservatives Green Paper, entitled: “One World Conservatism: A Conservative Agenda For International Development.” I remember there was unease at IDS Sussex that with the then likely ascension to power of the Conservatives (they were more comfortable working with the Labour Party, I suppose), it was going to have an effect on the funding for research at IDS. I’m not sure what impact this has had so far on the funding at IDS Sussex, but the point I’m driving home is that funding for research activities in a think tank directly has influence on the research output and possibly policy suggestions. I stand to be corrected! All the same, we can share experiences and best practices on this!

    October 19, 2011

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