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I worked at a think tank. I didn’t have time to think

A couple of days ago, Donald Abelson gave a lecture for the Institute for the Study of the Americas, in London. Before the event he published an opinion on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog.

I repost it below but it is worth going to the LSE site because there are some other very useful resources. One thing that caught my attention was the line that I have used as the title for this post: “I work at a think tank. I don’t have time to think.” I am not the colleague he refers to, but I have used the same line when explaining why I left the UK based think tank I used to work for.

But it wasn’t because I was busy ‘influencing policy’ (as his colleague suggests; although I was) but because I was busy with admin. Increasingly think tanks are being called to implement policy rather than design it (or advice on it, or challenge it, etc.) and this means that one has to be more a manager and less a researcher or a communicator.

Think tanks in many developing countries are joining the ranks of NGOs and consultancies in the implementation of donor policies (or, government policies, although this is less common), often subcontracted by think tanks, NGOs, and consultancies in developed countries. This carries additional costs and burdens and demands that think tanks employ managers and administrators to work alongside researchers. These ‘implementation’ projects (capacity development, setting up and facilitating networks, multi-site and multi-country evaluations or studies, etc.) may be a good way of making sure the organisations’ coffers are full, but they can drain the agency out of researchers and the think tanks.

This can (and I stress CAN) have another effect. It can transform think tanks into consultancies -capable of responding to bids, winning projects, implementing programmes, and delivering anything the client wants; but incapable to standing their ground and coming up with the next big idea, which requires much more thinking that is often possible.

Striking the right balance is therefore crucial and for the few think tanks who have core funding, as that provided by the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tank Fund and other initiatives, there has never been a better opportunity to demonstrate that, given the autonomy and freedom to think they can certainly make a difference.

Abelson’s main argument is only slightly different, but equally important and connected: influence is not just about popularity and the worth of a think tank cannot be just a matter of metrics. And this can be damaging (as I have argued in past posts relating to the use of indexes to assess the value of think tanks):

Ironically, while some think tanks lose little sleep over whether their work meets the highest scholarly standards, they do pay close attention to how they are perceived by policy-makers and potential donors.  As a result, in recent years, think tanks, often under pressure from their board of directors, have relied on various metrics such as media exposure to foster the illusion of policy influence. What matters most to think tanks is convincing their target audiences that they wield enormous influence in the political arena.  If they can use data on how often their experts are quoted by the media or testify before congressional committees so be it. But scholars who study these institutions must avoid the temptation of buying the story line that advocacy think tanks often advance.

The article is reposted below:

Think tanks must think more about issues of national interest, not self-interest

A colleague at a prominent Washington, DC-based think tank was asked recently by his employer to consider the major foreign policy challenges confronting the United States over the next decade. He replied half-jokingly, “I work at a think tank. I don’t have time to think.” My colleague’s frustration with the lack of time he has to think critically and methodically about key issues facing the United States has been echoed by countless policy experts residing at some of the nation’s leading research institutions.

Hired ostensibly to conduct research in specific policy areas, scholars at think tanks are now conditioned to do far more than write books and articles. They are expected to pen op-ed articles for newspapers, appear as talking heads on major television networks, testify before congressional committees, provide advice (both solicited and unsolicited)to presidential candidates and even court potential donors.  If time permits, they can think about their research, but increasingly, this is seen as a luxury.

As think tanks have joined the growing population of non-governmental organizations intent on shaping public opinion and public policy, their commitment to scholarly research has been called into question and justifiably so.  Scholars who study think tanks may not be able to agree on how to define these complex organizations, but few question the extent to which think tanks have willingly abandoned policy research in favour of political advocacy.

When Robert Brookings, Andrew Carnegie, Herbert Hoover and other philanthropists created think tanks during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, their goal was to bring the best and brightest minds in the country together to develop new and innovative ways to address America’s social and economic ills.  They believed that the national interest could be advanced by encouraging social scientists to apply their expertise to important issues of the day.

In many respects, they were right.  For example, scholars at the Brookings Institution helped create a national budget system, a significant achievement at the time.  Moreover, at the New-York-based Council on Foreign Relations, critical work was undertaken as part of the War and Peace Studies project to assist policy-makers chart a more effective strategy for America to pursue in the international community.

But the days when think tanks could legitimately claim that their research helped advance the national interest are long over.  By their very nature, advocacy think tanks – institutions that combine policy research with aggressive marketing- are not hard-wired to think in terms of the national interest.  Rather, their primary motivation is to shape the policy preferences and goals of decision makers in ways that both satisfy and advance their ideological interests and those of their generous benefactors.

In what has become an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas, think tanks are looking to leave an indelible mark on key policy discussions.  Put simply, many think tanks that populate America’s political landscape, including the Heritage Foundation and the Center for American Progress should be seen more as policy entrepreneurs than as generators of ideas. They are committed to providing policy makers and other stakeholders with information that can be easily digested.  Ensuring that their research adheres to rigorous scientific standards is rarely a consideration.  For these and other like –minded think tanks, ideas are simply commodities that can be traded on the open market.

Ironically, while some think tanks lose little sleep over whether their work meets the highest scholarly standards, they do pay close attention to how they are perceived by policy-makers and potential donors.  As a result, in recent years, think tanks, often under pressure from their board of directors, have relied on various metrics such as media exposure to foster the illusion of policy influence. What matters most to think tanks is convincing their target audiences that they wield enormous influence in the political arena.  If they can use data on how often their experts are quoted by the media or testify before congressional committees so be it. But scholars who study these institutions must avoid the temptation of buying the story line that advocacy think tanks often advance.

Contrary to Edwin Feulner, the long- serving president of the Heritage Foundation, the most talked about and written about think tanks are not always the ones that exercise the most policy influence.  It is incumbent on scholars tracking these institutions to identify how and to what extent think tanks participate in the policy-making process.  Think tanks can and often do make a difference in shaping the way the public and policy-makers think about critical issues.  Far more work, however, has to be done to evaluate whether these institutions are helping or hindering the efforts of the nation to rehabilitate its image at home and abroad.  So long as think tanks think more about their self-interest than the national interest, it is difficult to imagine that the results from this research will be promising

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