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Posts tagged ‘India’

Think tanks are on the agenda in India: Skills, Scale and Speed

Think tanks find it difficult to fundraise in developing countries. Outside of the usual international development agencies, few domestic private funders exist. The new Indian Government offers new arguments in favour of funding think tanks that should be considered by think tanks and their supporters alike. If it is good for India (and China) ...

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A case and a role for think tanks: India and Pakistan peace dialogue

Think tanks can be very valuable convenors of dialogue between parties that would otherwise not find it possible to meet and discuss common interests. This example from Kashmir illustrates this important role.

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Educate the public: a forgotten function for think tanks?

Think tanks can be used to reach out to the middle classes and the general public, too. It is not just a matter of influencing high level policies and policymakers. This education function, however, could be achieved by supporting the development of a more diverse and dynamic research and policy community.

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An alternative to funding domestic think tanks: bring out the big guns

Should we worry about US think tanks opening offices in developing countries or emerging economies? While the model could present unfair competition to smaller domestic think tanks it can also have positive effects by encouraging new domestic philanthropy and developing research quality.

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A new BRICS think tank network

The rise of the BRICS bloc in the last decade, since its conception as an economic group by Goldman Sachs in 2001 as a counterbalance to G7 countries in the world scene, has seen a growing cooperation between its members (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and, as a country added in later years, South Africa), specially on economic and diplomatic grounds, as well as the building of an institutional framework, having already held four summits, the last one in March in New Delhi. There is more trade within the bloc, estimated to reach USD 500 billion in 2015, and the contact between their governments is ever growing. However, BRICS countries have big differences, among them their political and cultural values, the composition of their economic structures and outreach, and, above all, the lack of a common history (with exception of some bilateral relations). Nonetheless, even if links between these countries are questionable, the group has been consolidating for the last five years.

The recent publication of The BRICS Report, on the occasion of the last summit, calls for a harmonisation of economic and diplomatic policies, as well as for forging stronger links between the five countries. In the Sanya summit in 2011, the declaration included the need of research cooperation, and the formation of meeting groups for think tanks. In November 2011, the BRICS Trade & Economic Research Network was launched in Shanghai by five think tanks:

Although all five of them are focused on different subjects in their own countries, in this agreement they have focused on three objectives related to trade and economics:

  • Promotion of fair markets,
  • Inclusive growth, and
  • Sustainable development.

As reported in their strategy paper, their work will consist of publications, policy research and advocacy, as well as highlighting the role of government funding for the growth of their activities. It is clear that trade tariffs and conditions are a key matter for the BRICS countries, as they face protectionist measures from developed countries in sectors like agriculture or manufacturing, where they are actually more competitive. These agreements for a BRICS research group were confirmed in the New Delhi summit this year, where talks about greater public policy research where on the agenda.

There are other efforts that look for a common BRICS policy and commitment to its development inside those countries has been getting ever stronger. In Brazil, the BRICS Policy Center (BPC), founded by PUC-Rio and the City of Rio de Janeiro, is dedicated to BRICS studies by means of analysis, further cooperation between the governments, and cooperation between their societies. The BPC receives visitor researchers and fellows from the other BRICS countries and they have a very active agenda on economic, commercial, political and cultural subjects, publishing research papers, organising conferences, monitoring work, etc.

This is an interesting transnational initiative in which think tanks have been given a key role by their respective governments. Do think tank networks in other regions play similar roles?

Brookings moving into India: is this the future for the developing world?

Both Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment have been working to move into India and set up shop there. According to the story on the Economic Times they have raised at least US$10 million. This is equivalent to the combined size of three of India’s top think tanks: the Centre for Policy Research, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), and the International Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

This is interesting; I have written about funding for think tank in India before, but what really captured my attention this time is the strategy of the foreign think tanks.

This is not the first time they have done this. Carnegie has offices in several countries (they call themselves a global think tank); Brookings has a centre in Beijing and another one in Doha; and other organisations like the Overseas Development Institute have staff and projects based within centres in several countries, too.

For the most part, however, these are initiatives to support in the delivery of their work and to claim greater relevance before their traditional funders. What has been reported in India, however, seems new. Large think tanks like Brookings and Carnegie (both with budgets above US$250 million) could be seen as the equivalent of Tesco or Walmart entering a village full of small corner-shops.

Sure, consumers will win in some respects: high quality research can be guaranteed by these centres. But at the same time diversity will be reduced (or at the very least limited) and it is diversity (in ideas, values, methods, and approaches) that think tanks’ contribution to society is best felt. Those US$10 million could go a longer way if they were provided to more local think tanks. And these would be, in turn, better prepared to handle these new big players.

Arguably, Brookings’ and Carnegie’s influence can take place even if they are not based in India. The internet and their reputation makes it easier than ever for them to influence policy anywhere in the world. But politics are still quite local and think tanks need to be present (physically) to make a real difference: be at the events, meetings, cocktails, join the right clubs, schools, etc.

Over the last few years, several international development think tanks based in developed countries have expressed an interest in building networks and links with think tanks in developing countries: they recognise that they have to be ‘there’ to be relevant and to tap into funds that are increasingly only available in-country as more and more donors award more power to their country offices. But they have faced serious challenges in finding competent think tanks in the countries where the opportunities are higher (where more aid fund are available, at is).

So far the idea that they could set up local offices has been treated with care: among international development think tanks this rings of neo-colonialism. But now that Brookings and Carnegie (and maybe others) are adopting this strategy wholeheartedly, will they reconsider? And is this a good idea?

On the one hand we could think that these US$10 million are US$10 million being ‘lost’ for local think tanks (in this case, much of the money is likely to come from foreign funders, anyway). On the other hand, at least they stay in the country. And let’s be honest, most of the countries where this may happen are places where local think tank capacity is unlikely to develop anytime soon -regardless of how much money funders pour into research.  Furthermore, these foreign think tanks may be able to encourage local philanthropists to ‘give it a go’ in ways that local think tanks may not be able to. After a while, who knows, they may choose to fund local think tanks, too (or instead of Brookings or Carnegie or any other foreign think tank). Similarly, local think tanks may learn from these foreign ones: pick up new research and communication practices that could strengthen their capacity to influence policy and raise new funds locally, for example.

I have argued that programmes like the Think Tank Initiative or the Think Tank Fund, funded by people like Gates or Soros, could use their funders to encourage local philanthropists to take on the responsibility of funding think tanks in their own countries. Bilateral aid should do that too: leverage domestic funds, don’t just create dependency.

So both foreign funders and think tanks have a responsibility, whether they are filling a funding gap or  capturing domestic resources (or resources normally destined to domestic centres), to encourage domestic philanthropy to local think tanks and develop the local think tank community.

Think tank directories and lists

I have found a few public lists -here are some that may be useful (thank you Goran, Mahfuz, Reema and Francisco for the additional suggestions):

If you have any more please let me know.

Call for proposals for experiments in using evidence for policy influence in South Asia

The Evidence based Policy in Development Network in South Asia has announced a call for experiments in using evidence for policy influence in the region (you will have to sign up to download it).

CEPA’s announcement reads:

This is a Call for Proposals open to organisations working the region to submit proposals to develop (or expand on) policy influencing projects into ongoing or recently completed research work. The available budget allows for funding of maximum two projects.

Objectives of the policy project:

  • Support evidence based policy efforts in the region
  • Understand the process of using evidence to influence policy, in particular:

What is involved when trying to influence policy?
How can evidence be used better?
What are the skills we need to develop to influence policy more proactively?

  • Provide spaces for researchers to become more policy influential on the basis that this work is not often supported through research projects in a concrete and meaningful way
  • Provide the space for researchers to reflect on the policy processes that they are trying to influence through their work

Deadline for proposals – 4 March 2011. Applicants are required to sign up on the regional platform.

For clarification on this call, activities on the ebpdn platform, and/or CEPA please email Azra Abdul Cader, CEPA at

The call document is here.

Another year, another ranking of think tanks (and surprise surprise, Brookings is still the best)

I’ll accept that James McGann’s effort to identify and rank all the think tanks in the world has some positive outcomes. First of all, it has people talking about think tanks -and some think tanks are even becoming aware that there is a debate out there about themselves. Second… no, that is it. [Also have a look at Goran Buldioski's blog on the same subject]

I am still of the opinion that going beyond the counting and study of individual think tanks (and their immediate systems) is useless and misleading. Here are five reasons why I do not support this ranking, and then a longer semi-rant at the document.

  1. Think tanks cannot be de-linked from their political, social and economic environment; since think tanks define themselves in relation to the other players in the system. Brookings cannot be described without references to US bipartisanship -when we say independent research in the US we mean independent of either party (as well as of other interests). But independent means something entirely different in China, India, Brazil, or Argentina. Global and regional rankings are therefore unhelpful when the focus of think tanks is local (not local as in of this town or neighbourhood but of their direct interactions).
  2. The list is too diverse to be relevant. The definition of ‘think tanks’ has improved since I last commented on it to include politics. But he has now included organisations some that cannot be possibly compared with the rest. Let’s put it this way: if I define a mobile phone as a device that allows me to make phone calls while on the move I could be tempted to include laptops (after all I can make Skype calls ‘on the move’) but I wouldn’t because it would be confusing and unhelpful. A mobile is one thing and a laptop is another. Maybe they will do things that the other can also do but that does not make them the same thing. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International and the various foundations (funders rather than researchers) included …. how useful is it to compare them with IPAR in Rwanda or GRADE in Peru?
  3. It is still based on perception rather than thoughtful analysis. Thoughtful analysis would have required the development of a database with answers to all the questions or criteria presented in page 56. These are good questions, but the nominators were not asked to provide answers to these, only to use them to think about their nominations. This means that it is all about presentation rather than content: still a popularity contest among people who clearly cannot know about every context and must therefore rely on what is accessible to them (this is obvious when one realises that most of the top non-US think tanks are either focusing on (or working under the banner of) international development, security and foreign affairs). The kind of analysis that I am attempting and that Goran Buldioski, for instance, is undertaking in Eastern Europe is absent.
  4. A ranking must have a clear definition of what the top spot implies: top 25 by revenue, by number of staff, by number of publications, by happiness of their staff, etc. It is the same as with sport: Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter. The Ballon d’Or on the other hand is a perception based award given to the best football player according to the votes of coaches and captains of international teams, as well as journalists from around the world. So you either define why one wins or you define who votes; but you cannot keep both unclear or hidden.
  5. It is dangerous. It creates incentives towards investing in profile raising and visibility rather than focusing on research and research capacity. The director of a think tank that is not on the list emailed me, worried about their absence, what should we do? Given that they are one of the most influential think tanks in their country, undertake research of the highest quality and are running groundbreaking and innovative initiatives (copied all over the world) my answer is: nothing. And those who make it to the list because they are popular rather than good are incentivised against doing anything about it because they may believe that the list confers them credibility.

My recommendation (if some sort of ranking is what we want) then continues to be the promotion of national think tank awards like the one promoted by Prospect Magazine. It is a shame, really, because this project has the potential to collect fantastic data on think tanks unfortunately because of the focus on the ranking a huge opportunity is being lost.

On the report itself, here are some preliminary comments after a single read (I promise to give it another go):

The first thing I notice is that top to the list are Brookings and Chatham House. I often go to their websites and find out a bit more about them and see that, yes, they have fantastic research and wide range of products and are clearly at the top of their game. And when I can I go to Chatham House events. So far so good, I guess. But then, second and third are Amnesty International and Transparency International. I know these organisations well. They are quite active in my country (Peru) but they are international campaigning NGOs, not think tanks. Transparency International participates in electoral processes as an observer. Is this the role of a think tank? Amnesty international campaigns for human rights and against their violations. I don’t think that researchers lobbying for more funds and freedom for think tanks in many developing countries would like their governments to think that this would mean more space for TI and AI to operate there too. Apples and Oranges?

Then I remember that the winner of Prospect Magazine’s 2010 Think Tanks Award was the Institute for Government; I check the top non-US think tanks but find that there are other UK think tanks in the list and the Institute for Government is nowhere to be found. In fact, it is not mentioned in the whole document. That is odd but, OK, not all rankings have to agree. What about Policy Exchange? Policy Exchange was set up by the supporters and members of the Conservative Party and was instrumental in the development of the ideas that shaped the arguments that won the 2010 election and that are guiding the new government’s policy agenda. There is a fantastic indirect account of this in Peter Snowdon’s book: Back from the Brink. No, the Policy Exchange is not listed either.

To make sure I am not missing anything I jump to the table for Europe (page 31) but no luck. They are not there. But the Overseas Development Institute is.

Now, as much as I like ODI, I am sure that it is not more influential than Policy Exchange. So, wait a minute, maybe this ranking is not about influence but about worth..?… about value? reputation? is it about finding the ones more capable of speaking truth to power? But why then have an index every year? What can change year on year to get a new one into the ranking? An annual index suggest that think tanks quality can change in a short period of time and therefore it is possible for an unknown organisation to make it to the top is the happen to do all the right things. Is it possible in this ranking? CGD did it more or less and on the basis of a good combination of research and communications. But is it possible for think tanks in small countries focusing on local issues? And is it really a worthy end?

The more I see Chatham House and other security and international relations think tanks the more it feels as if the theme of this year’s ranking is foreign policy or international development -maybe that is what this year was about. Or maybe this is what the annual ranking should be about: focus on a single theme so that more and better analysis can be done for each think tank.

Nevermind, let’s get back to it. On to Latin America, which I know a bit. The list includes the Centro de Estudios Publicos (CEP) from Chile, the Centro de Implementacion de Politicas Publicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC) in Argentina, the Instituto Libertad y Democracia (ILD) in Peru (which by the way is on both 15 and 24), and CEPAL (the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, or ECLAC in English). This is interesting. CEPAL is the only truly regional policy research centre in the list -but it is a UN body. CEP and CIPPEC are clearly focused on their own countries -and they are certainly influential there but not in my country, Peru. And ILD was influential (granted it has been one of the most influential organisations int he world led by their director Hernando de Soto) but it almost has no public presence in Peru and cannot be really compared with other Peruvian and Latin American think tanks if one quickly browses through their work and publications. ILD is a fantastic analysis based consultancy working across the developing world on the basis of some research done in the 1980s. If they make it to the top of the list it is far more interesting to find out why this is the case rather than their place in the ranking: is it because this is what policymakers value, or were the respondents from Africa or Asia where they do most of their work?

In any case, policy in Peru is influenced by (among the think tanks) CIUP, GRADE (which is mentioned), IEP, and others that are not on the list. This is a perfect example of visibility: is it sometimes my impression that GRADE is quite successful in reaching audiences in DC and London and is therefore well known globally; while IEP and CIUP might be more focused on domestic policy debates and hence less well known beyond the country or region -or certain research communities. This probably reflects their origins, mandate and business models. So even within a country, comparison is difficult. Who is to say though whether one is better than the other based on their choice of audiences? [This section has been edited; see comments below.]

Back to Latin America (and for that matter, Europe). In Latin America there isn’t a regional government so what is the point of a regional ranking. So what is the top think tank is Brazilian? Is it informing the Chilean government? Is it valuable for Colombia? Maybe in Europe ‘European think tanks’ make more sense but then is this why domestically focused think tanks are not mentioned? Clearly, international reviewers would not know who are the movers and shakers of Peruvian, British, or Spanish policies. (Again, a point in favour of national awards.)

So maybe the regional focus has little to do with where the think tanks do their influencing and more with quite simply where they are based. But if this is the case then once again we’d be separating think tanks from their context -and this is not right.

And now on to Africa. This list looks a bit messy, to say the least. The first 7 are from South Africa (no surprises there). But number 8 is a regional research network made up of researchers based in think tanks across Africa -I’d like to call it a think tank but I am not sure how it compares with the others. And then it lists a few organisations which can hardly be called organisations at all and are only popular or known because they are among the only ones in their countries. Others are in the process of getting there; but are not there yet. A tiny bit of analysis would have provided sufficient information to disqualify them as worthy of any ranking; and to identify many others who may be more worthy of a mention.

Anyway, what is the point of saying that organisation xyz is among the top 25 in Africa? How does it compare with the Latin American ones, for instance?

What happened with the debate on think tanks in South Asia? I’ve been avidly following a great debate on Indian newspapers on think tanks that would suggest a fantastic opportunity for a study such as this one. And how useful is it to compare them with think tanks in East and Southeast Asia? In fact, how useful is it to compare think tanks in China or Vietnam with those in Japan, Indonesia and South Korea? Our overview study on think tanks and politics in the region showed foundational differences between them that merit more rather than less national focus.

The lack of analysis is telling of the limits of this type of research. A country or region focused study (rather than ranking) would have been much richer and useful.

The thematic rankings are also quite interesting. The fact still remains that one cannot separate theme from politics -and politics are always local.

I would have loved an explanation for Chatham House coming ahead of IDS in the ranking on International Development. Chatham House if by far a better think tank than ODI and IDS on foreign policy (and let’s face it they are a fantastic think tank in general and its contribution to international development debate is invaluable) but given that international development policy is still largely dominated by DFID and that DFID’s research programme is dominated by IDS and ODI (and not Chatham House) and that IDS alumni roam the corridors of DFID I cannot understand the ranking. More explanation is needed, please.

Also, why is Fundacao Getulio Vargas included in this table? They are not focused on International Development policy, their focus is on just policies; the international development prefix is added by ‘northern’ organisations to describe policies for or of developing countries. FGT deal with economic, business and legal research for the development of Brazil. How is this different from the research done by Brookings or IPPR for the development of the US and the UK respectively? (patronising?)

Also FGV is included at the foundation level not at the level of its centres of programmes, however, the Pew Research Center rather than the Pew Charitable Trusts is included. Why? I would suggest that it has to do with the narrow and shallow focus on a global index instead of a desire to understand the richness of the histories of these organisations.

Then it gets confusing -think tanks are in more than one category but in totally different levels and others which one would expect to find are gone. Yes, this is all possible, as most think tanks would be good in one thing and not in all; but Chatham House, for example, is the top UK think tank in most list but behind the International Institute for Strategic Studies when it comes to their core area of expertise: foreign policy and security. This makes no sense.

The potentially most useful list (domestic economic policy) ends up being a US focused one. This further illustrates the limitations of a global ranking and its bias towards international development and foreign affairs think tanks that are more easily identifiable in the blogosphere or more popular communication channels than domestically focused ones.

Then the special categories: most innovative policy idea -great category but what have they been nominated for? what was the idea that got Brookings to the top? Again, another missed opportunity to provide intelligent insights into the rich and complex reality of think tanks. The same goes for the outstanding policy research programme category. Which programme got ODI the 15th place? ODI has quite a lot of programmes -and also projects that we call programmes because they are larger than the usual small projects we run. So which one was it? The Africa Power and Politics Programme? The Research and Policy in Development Programme? The Humanitarian Policy Group’s Integrated Programme? The Chronic Poverty Research Centre? It is important to know because some of these are delivered with other organisations so ODI could not take all the credit.

I got bored a bit and jumped over some tables until I got to the best government affiliated think tank -WBI? Nice to know that the WB is considered a government. If the WB is a ‘government’ would the UN not be one too? (UNU-WIDER and CEPAL are in the other tables.) What about think tanks entirely (or almost entirely) funded by their governments or the international cooperation?

And then, Party Affiliated think tanks -which is an important addition to any work on think tanks. This merits an entirely different post. What does affiliated mean? Does this include Conservative think tanks in the United States like Heritage or the Conservative Party’s Central Research Department? And wouldn’t CASS and VASS (the Vietnamese equivalent of CASS) be part of this category? After all, they are affiliated to the Communist Party and Chinese and Vietnamese line ministries have their own think tanks.

I don’t want this to be a totally anti-Go-to-Think-Tank-of-the-Year rant. As I said before, the ranking has created an opportunity for debate and discussion on think tanks and this is good. But this ought to lead to a proper discussion about think tanks, the roles they play and how they may be able to contribute to their contexts (local and/or global).

The list of questions and criteria in page 56 is the best part of the document and an important contribution to the think tanks debate. It provides a guideline of sorts to study think tanks in greater detail and to promote a more intelligent debate. Focusing on the list and the ranking, I think, robs us of James McGann’s and his team’s undeniable capacity to do this and leave us with a bitchy Oscar nominations season for researchers.

on the importance and roles of think tanks, India

What is the value of think tanks? In this article by Sangeeta Saxena (with a good quote to begin with “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”) Indians ask Indians (no donor involved) about the importance of think tanks.

The directors of 5 Indian think tank offer their views -which give this blog’s readers and me some interesting insights into the perception of the role of think tanks in India. I have picked a few quotes that relate to the links between policy and research but there is plenty more on the origins of think tanks, their business models, funding and their activities:

Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), Director, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi:

Does the research in think tanks influence the policy making of the ministry of defence?

I do not try to find this out. Once we have published or discussed matters, we forward it to the ministry but do not ask them whether they have used the content in decision and policy making. That is not my concern.

What should be the role of a defence think tank?

The defence think tanks do the security related thinking for the country. It thinks 10 to 20 years ahead and suggests developments on the strategic fronts. It conveys these to the government. They create a platform for brainstorming on issues of security and strategic planning, and help the officials in decision making. These think tanks also create an awareness in the Indian elite, civil and military on matters of security, so that they can prepare themselves to be a major part of the thinking world. It creates and spreads knowledge.

Rear Admiral Ravi Vohra VSM (Retd), Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi:

Do ministry of shipping, defence and industries recognise your role in maritime issues management?

When 90% of trade is dependent on sea routes, it is important to safeguard issues affecting the oceans. Harbours and security aspects are important for the nation. If ministry and bureaucrats are asked questions, there are no answers as these officials keep busy. So thinking has to be done by us. We have never attempted nor tried to question government policies which are decided by officials.

What is the role of the Indian Navy in NMF?

In a record time of one and a half months navy did a good job of getting the infrastructure ready. It was handed over to us and we also have two officers of the navy posted on our strength. We cover both civil and military maritime issues. In addition we also cover issues concerning merchant navy and coast guards. Officers of both navy and coast guards attend our round tables and seminars.

Brig. Gurmeet Kanwal(Retd), Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi:

Last five years have seen the unnecessary mushrooming of think tanks in India. Comment.

The larger the number of think tanks we have, the better we will be as a nation.

Does the bureaucracy listen to your suggestions and conclusions on various issues?

Bureaucracy realises that there is no harm in listening to the think tanks. We give them the reports regularly. Real distinction I would like to make is that when you are in policy making and execution, you have no time to study. So think tanks become important. Things are looking up in the think tank community in India.

In USA think tanks officials get incorporated into government positions of importance. When do you see India progressing towards such a scenario?

Cross pollination of bureaucracy and think tanks is not happening in India. That is why think tanks do not get taken seriously. Politicians are blissfully unaware of their existence most of the times. But we are keeping our fingers crossed for things to move in the right direction.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) V R Raghavan Director, Delhi Policy Group (DPG) and President, Centre for Security Analysis (CSA) New Delhi:

Does DPG forward all its research to the MOD and MEA?

Sure we send every document to the ministries. They get hundreds and hundreds of documents and they go into raddi. There is no system of reading and analysing them. If it goes by name to the secretary and other bureaucrats it gets acknowledged. When highlighted centre pointers go by name to ministers or PMO we get a call.

Do you feel it is utilised at the policy making level?

Sure, we feel it is utilised at policy level. Publications are reference material and is used in research. Our objective is to influence the policy makers to think. They continuously ask us for information. There are highly competent and professional people in the ministries.

Lt. Gen. (Retd) P K Singh Director, United Services Institution of India, New Delhi:

Does USI influence policies of the government, on defence and national security?

We have tremendous synergy with government. We help in creating a tentative road map keeping national and regional interests in mind.

What is the need of having thirty odd think tanks in Delhi?

Think tanks are like sounding boards to get people from all over the world to ideate. It is good to have so many think tanks as it gives cross section of ideas and research.

I found interesting that there was a very marked focused on research -each one to his/her job: researchers do the research and policymakers and politicians should use it (or not) to make decisions. Nonetheless, their activity portfolios all include a range of active communication initiatives designed to facilitate this uptake.

And then there is the unfortunate situation that think tanks are not yet supported by India’s corporate sector (and philanthropists) -at least not at the level that Indian commentators expect.









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