Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘independence’

Economic downturn affects think tank funding

Foreign funding for think tanks seems to be decreasing, affecting institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. Dependence on foreign funding and few domestic sources paint a worrying picture for their future. But is it the same for all?

Read more

The onthinktanks interview: Sandra Polonia Rios on Brazilian funding models

In this interview, Sandra Polonia Rios, Director of theCentro de Estudos de Integração e Desenvolvimento, in Brazil, discusses how different funding models can affect think tanks' influence

Read more

Foreign funding and social science research in Peru

How does foreign funding influence the social science research agenda? The authors of this paper find that Peruvian academics are surprisingly autonomous when determining their research projects in spite of being heavily dependent on international cooperation.

Read more

Think Tanks and Universities: Practical Considerations

There are synergies between think tanks and universities. This blog draws attention to the more practical side of this symbiotic relationship as well as the significant risks that these linkages can bring, including some opportunities and challenges.

Read more

Can Consultancies Sustain a Long-Term Research Strategy in Developing Countries?

[Editor’s note: This post has been written by Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia.]

The mushrooming of consultancy firms and NGOs drawing on a large number of social scientists amounts to an internal brain drain, which is no less problematic than the external brain drain, even if it is less talked about. Mweru, 2010

In Bolivia, as in most other developing countries, there is very little government support for scientific research and even full-time university professors are not generally expected to do research. This means that the small amount of research that does get done in these countries is the product of consultancies and other commissioned work, financed mostly by international institutions.

This situation has been thoroughly criticized by many scholars. Although the following quote from Mahmood Mamdani refers to Africa, it sounds just like Bolivia:

Today, intellectual life in universities has been reduced to bare-bones classroom activity. Extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels. Workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem. All this is part of a larger process, the NGO-ization of the university.

According to Mamdani, the problem with consultancies is that they are seeking answers to problems posed and defined by a client. But university research, properly understood, requires formulating the problem itself. A similar analysis is followed by the study by Maureen Mweru: “Why Kenyan academics do not publish in international refereed journals”.

I was recently asked to give a talk on this topic at the Canadian Government International Development Research Centre‘s (IDRC) Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, and as always, I tried to attack the problem from an unusual angle.

I have personally experienced the two most extreme cases possible. At my old university in Denmark we had lavish, unrestricted public funding to do whatever research we wanted, whereas at our little NGO in Bolivia we depended (until recently) 100% on consulting contracts. I found that I actually prefer the latter. My former classmates at my old university are still analyzing the asymptotic properties of increasingly obscure estimators, while at INESAD we are at least working on real problems with the potential to have a real impact on real people. I find that much more satisfying, even if the problems are often defined by donors.

I believe it is perfectly possible to use consulting contracts and other commissioned work to sustain a long-term research strategy, and at the TTI Exchange I presented the following six criteria for selecting consulting projects so as to support a long-term research agenda in the absence of lavish government funding for research:

  1. Synergies with other projects: Make sure new projects complement ongoing projects and fit well within your long-term research agenda.
  2. Publication potential: Avoid projects that result in confidential reports. Instead aim for projects which dedicate at least 10% of the budget to publication and dissemination. You want your work to be known and contribute to the global pool of knowledge.
  3. Relationship building: Prioritize large projects involving many different institutions rather than individual desk work. This is more complicated, but it is an excellent way of building relationships and trust with policy makers and key stakeholders, a necessary condition for achieving real impact on real people someday.
  4. Project duration: Choose projects of at least 6-12 months duration, as short consulting projects tend to disrupt the long-term research agenda, because they always tend to become the most urgent, even if they are not the most important.
  5. Knowledge transfer: Choose international, collaborative projects where you will learn new research tools from cutting-edge researchers abroad.
  6. Financing: Choose only projects that pay the full opportunity costs. No need to subsidize development banks.

For this strategy to work, at least some donors should think in the same way. In order to limit the internal and external brain drain in developing countries, they should design their projects with the abovementioned criteria in mind: give room for developing country researchers to define the problem to be investigated; ensure wide dissemination of research results; encourage highly interactive projects; finance projects with a duration of at least one year; facilitate international collaboration; and be willing to pay the full costs, including overhead.

Do you think that think tanks and consultancies can sustain a long-term research strategy? Leave a reply below.

New trends for Chinese Think Tanks

China has had a long tradition of think tanks serving as policy researchers and governmental advisors. Currently, according to Xufeng Zhu, Director of the Centre of Chinese Policy Science, and Associate Director of the Centre for MPA Education, Nankai University, there seems to be a new trend constisting of non governmental think tanks entering the public policy arena and posing a challenge to certain institutions, such as semi – official think tanks.

Chinese think tanks are stable and autonomous organisations that undertake research and provide guidance and consultancy on several policy issues. There are three types of these kinds of institutes in this country:

1. Official policy research institutes, under the control of specific ministries and ministries’ institutional missions;
2. Semi – official think tanks, that are connected to a supervising government agency, and
3. Non governmental think tanks.

Until now, semi official think tanks have been the most important component in policy research and consultation outside of the Chinese government; such two important institutions are the Development Research Center (DRC) of State Council and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). They are independent legal institutions, supervised by the Chinese state. They are also now more independent and are expressing their views in a more direct manner, even those that go against official governmental positions.

However, nongovernmental think tanks are now increasing competition for semi official think tanks, who used to dominate policy consultation channels. These organisations emerged after Deng Xiaopings’s South China tour in 1992, two types of which are noteworthy: those set up by China’s colleges and universities by returned scholars, and those set up by experts who had success in public institution-type think tanks.

Government officials are paying more attention to the opinions proposed by non-governmental think tanks than before, especially in the international relations field […] Non-governmental think tanks are also an increasingly important link between Chinese government officials and foreign experts.

Another important feature of Chinese think tanks to point out is that there seems to be a “revolving door” of researchers that leave their institutions to enter politics and public office, but then retire from these positions to go back to academic life. The China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE, in 2009) is known for this “revolving door” effect, since many retired officials are now serving as the organisation’s leaders and are in charge of conducting the research work.

Who took the “think” out of think tanks? from The Berkeley Blog

Dan Farber, professor of law asks: Who took the “think” out of think tanks? He visited several (US) conservative think tanks’ websites and found little research on climate change; lots of opinions but no research:

I did find some interesting policy papers on their webpage on the topic of climate policy. But here’s the surprising part: the latest paper on the subject is dated June 23, 2010.  Of course, AEI has continued to produce a stream of op-eds on the subject, but no actual research.

Why? Is it because these centres have stopped doing any research or, as he suggests, that doing any research on the subject would lead to a rather uncomfortable situation. He considers several reasons:

  • it would mean taking the climate change science seriously;
  • their agendas are reactive; and
  • they are being driven by headlines and visibility.

All of these are critiques that can be made about other think tanks. I have often criticised that most international development think tanks stay away from the aid debate because of the same reasons.

In any case, this is a good indicator of intellectual autonomy that donors could consider when assessing think tanks. Are there any great absentees -and why?

 

A new think tank model for higher quality, independence and transparency

Lately there has been a rather lively discussion about the role and value of think tanks in the UK. George Monbiot, a journalist who often writes for The Guardian, has challenged their transparency. Prospect Magazine only recently announced the winners of its annual think tank award. And there have been some discussions on the way think tanks behave in relation to their funders’ own interests -are they nothing more than PR vehicles?

An article by Dr Andy Williamson takes this forward by challenging the current dominant model for think tanks in the UK. He argues that if think tanks are to have greater impact then they must embrace three principles:

  • Quality

The nature of many current think-tanks means that work agendas are driven by funding rather than the need (or desire) for good quality research. Funding also restricts the quality of staff available. Critical thinking is becoming critically endangered.

With a background in commercial consultancy, I know how the ‘big firm’ model works; send in the partners to pitch then, on day one, a two-days-in-the-job graduate walks in the door with a manual under their arm. Are think-tanks any different? In a word… No. They are over-reliant on low-cost junior staff to do a lot of the heavy lifting. This means either junior researchers or, more often than not, interns. Think-tanks are staffed by a sea of young, eager researchers all keen to make careers in government and politics.

Williamson is very critical of think tanks overeliance on young staff to do the work. He argues that they lack the most important thing required for critical thinking: experience. And this lack of experience means that they are unable to translate thought into action. I agree. But at the same time, I think that think tanks can be a place where young researchers can gain experience, provided that they are given the right support and that this is not rushed. I cringe at 25 year-olds with Fellow or Senior on their name cards. There is no rush.

  • Balance or independence
More insidious, more dangerous because it’s about direct funding (the latter point is ultimately about indirect funding), research funded by government departments, through commercial sponsorship, donations or from trusts presents a danger. How much does the need to maintain a funding stream impact on one’s ability to be totally honest in research? I can certainly say I have felt pressured to dilute findings that might be seen as critical of a funder. Something I refuse to do if the data supports the argument I’m making but this position needs to be made clear to the funder in advance.
Williamson is right in demanding greater upfront transparency. We know that the reality of think tanks is not the romantic ideal of the large endowment that lets them do as they please. But independence (or autonomy) comes from being transparent about it: up-front. As Goran Buldioski argued in this blog, if a think tank is being objective then why would it not want to disclose who is funding it? I share his concern for government funding, too. Particularly if it is tied to conditions and not long term enough to be free from political and personal influences.
  • Transparency

It is important to be upfront and honest about why research is being undertaken; who commissioned it and why. It is equally important to be clear and open about how data has been collected, not just from where (and who) but how the data was derived. Issues of method and analysis are important to us understanding what research is trying to say.

Publicly funded academic research usually requires the datasets to be published in an online repository. How many think-tanks do this too, even when their research has been publicly funded? Some do, but more should consider it. It might be as simple as publishing raw survey data in Excel or SPSS file formats for other researchers to use. This can also be useful for checking the veracity of the findings – this is not something to be concerned about if you have followed good principles; just because I’ve re-analysed your data and come to a different conclusion it doesn’t mean your own analysis is wrong, it just means I’ve interpreted it differently.

Surely this is a good thing as it adds to the intellectual debate?

CGD has started to publish the data it uses in its work. They even have a policy for it. They’ve even published the policy online.This is a good example of think tanks making themselves accountable and recognising that while they might have arrived a particular conclusion, others may arrive at another. Research, as Williamson argues, is subjective.

As a good thinktanker, Williamson puts forward an alternative model for us to consider.

  1. Dump the Georgian architecture and draw in the best thinkers to solve the problems at hand: in other words, he argues for more funds being allocated towards attracting the best minds and worrying less about the think tank’s offices, its meeting rooms, its branding, etc.
  2. Embrace the digital world for collaboration and transparency
But the recommendations, I think, do not go far enough. One thing that I believe think tanks must be willing to do, and that few ever consider, is close. If think tanks were willing to close if, say, the funding they received was not free from political or ideological meddling, or if the work they were able to do was not of the highest level, or they were not allowed to focus on long term issues, etc., they would not feel compelled to walk down the path that Williamson is describing in his article. Independence comes from being able to walk away.

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.

When influence can be a bad thing: “think tanks are crushing our democracy”

George Monbiot has published a rather interesting commentary on Comment is Free about the  damage that secretive think tanks can make on democratic institutions.

I have talked about this before, arguing that direct impact, without public debate, can be damaging to the development of necessary democratic institutions such as political parties (I dedicated a whole book to this), the media, parliaments, etc.

Monbiot here focuses on how ‘secret’ interests are funding public policy influence and the effect that this has on how we conduct politics:

When she attempted to restrict abortion counsellingNadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists. Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy”. Michael Gove was chairman ofPolicy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you”.

In other words, if think tanks demand better policy making then they must be ready to achieve this by the right means: they must be ‘better’ themselves. In this blog, Goran Buldioski has argued that think tanks can gain independence if they strive to be transparent. George Monbiot takes it to another level saying that if they do not then their action can in fact be damaging.

I would like to encourage other journalists and researchers to follow on his footsteps and call your local think tanks enquiring about the source of their funding. Paraphrasing Monbiot (I’ve replaced the words in italics):

I charge that the groups which call themselves independent think tanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the donors and NGOs who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term independent thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by the big Aid industry.

Interestingly, though, these efforts are likely to find that it is not unusual for think tanks in developing countries to openly name most of their funders. Many funders in fact demand that they give them preferential space on their websites and corporate communication materials. So is it then that, unlike their British counterparts, they are not undermining democracy?

No. I think that the issue of whether funding sources are disclosed or not is important but not crucial. If all funding was disclosed and all parties were open about the source of their funding -and ideas- then the public policy debate would be richer as a consequence and democracy would be strengthened. We, as citizens, would be better informed (even by ‘paid for by’ evidence that may hold some truth) and capable of make our own assessments and choices. The same applied to newspapers and the media in general. I think it is clear to anyone what to expect from The Guardian or The Times and so would not take what they write about at face value. By reading both papers however, one may be able to get a more balanced view on issues of public interest.

The worrying situation in some developing countries is that the funders of research and influence are foreign. Ideas and influencing efforts then are driven by objectives and targets that have been externally set and not by local interest groups, that exist in any democracy and are eventually accountable to local rules. We should remember too that local interest groups include unions, consumer associations, and civil society coalitions -it is not just large corporations.

A policy maker in Zambia told me earlier this year that he preferred to read the advice from business associations because he knew what they were interested in and could therefore make up his own mind about the reliability of the evidence that was presented to him. With NGOs, he said, you cannot know if it is what they really think or if they are saying whatever their funders want them to say.

Besides funding, then, what I’d really like to know then is how is it that the think tanks in my country developed their research and influencing agendas. Again, it is the question of autonomy that concerns me most.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,464 other followers