Do think tanks promote independent policy research and critical thinking, or simply serve to push pre-defined policy agendas defined by their funders? While in in September 2014, the New York Times alleged that foreign donors were attempting to “buy influence” through the funding of think tanks in D.C., this post argues that US funders might be doing just that, and quite openly, in countries like Georgia. This is the fifth post from the Thinking about think tanks in the South Caucasus series.
Posts tagged ‘independence’
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
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.
[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:
- Synergies with other projects: Make sure new projects complement ongoing projects and fit well within your long-term research agenda.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Knowledge transfer: Choose international, collaborative projects where you will learn new research tools from cutting-edge researchers abroad.
- 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.
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?
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:
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.