A case for funding university-based/linked think tanks: more and better staff for others

27 August 2012
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

I rarely write about individual think tanks -mainly because I do recognise that, given think tanks’ complexities, it is very easy to get it wrong. But on this issue I am using the case of Peru mainly to help in presenting the argument with clarity. Just for the record, and hopefully to get a reaction to this idea, I think this has implications for initiatives such as AusAID’s Knowledge Sector Support Programme, the Think Tank Initiative, and the Think Tank Fund. But it is perfectly relevant for other research funders and their grantees looking for ‘impact’ to report on.

I want to address the fact that the university based think tanks is not at the top of most think tank funders’ priorities. And even when they are funded (and they are) this is done as if they were independent (is any really independent?) think tanks and with the explicit objective of enhancing their capacity to influence policy -very little else seems to matter. This is a shame in part because these think tanks are probably better able than any others to promote the development of evidence informed policy capacities -see Kirsty Newman’s post on this: Policy influence versus evidence-informed policy.

But it is also the case that we are missing out on an important function that these think tanks can fulfil particularly well: to train researchers for other think tanks.

It just occurred to me that while I was studying economics at the Universidad del Pacifico in Peru I, as pretty much all my fellow students, spent some time working at the university’s think tank, CIUP. Some spent just a few months involved in one or two projects while others took up positions as long term interns and research assistants. I stayed at CIUP after graduating as did some of my peers. Others, who had worked at CIUP before graduation went on to work for other local think tanks such as GRADE, MacroConsult, Apoyo, etc. Of all those who stayed at CIUP after graduation not all became full-time researchers there. Some stayed but many left to join other these other think tanks -as well as public and private organisations in Peru and abroad. Some have gone back after years working in other centres and sectors.

The point is that CIUP’s link to the university and its education responsibilities -which can be seen by some funders as a constraint on their independence- in effect led to it ‘subsidising’ the development of the capacity of its competitors’ (or comparators’) staff (which they would have otherwise had to develop themselves -although I must point out that GRADE, Macro and other centres do develop the capacity of their young researchers but I would argue that there is at least an initial investment made by the university based centres that provides a good base to build on). I have come across the more extreme situation in several countries where there are no university think tanks: young researchers telling me that they joined a think tank after graduation because they had not learned how to do research at university; and think tank directors have confided that they have to build the capacity of their young recruits whose research skills are close to nil.

Of course in Peru there are other such university think tanks and so CIUP shares this role. But in many countries there are not that many good universities with strong and respected think tanks where students can first learn to do research and practice the skills they will need later on. And in other cases there simply are no university think tanks at all (or those that exist are not really fulfilling this role) and so graduates and think tanks are left without the skills they need. Additionally, without the opportunity to practice policy research, many graduates are simply unaware that think tanks can be an exiting and interesting career path.

When I say that without CIUP-like organisations young graduates would not have the opportunity to learn how to do policy research and analysis, I am speaking from experience: this is where I learned about policy analysis and had the chance to practice it and get the taste for it. My peers and I may have learnt lots of information (theories, models, facts) in class but would not have had the chance to apply it to real and practical questions had it not been for the think tank and the opportunities the university gave us to work with the researchers at CIUP on real policy research and analysis.

By supporting university based think tanks, therefore, funders can create positive externalities that can have critical effects across the entire knowledge sector -as well as on other public and private policy players. This support can come in the form of:

  • Institutional funds to encourage more students to participate in policy research and analysis initiatives with senior researchers. These projects can offer students the opportunity to experience the various aspects of think tank work: data collection, analysis, project management, communications, policy engagement, fundraising, etc.
  • Travel grants for top students to spend a few weeks or their summer holidays in think tanks in the US, Europe or elsewhere (and my usual disclaimer applies: NOT international development think tanks).
  • Seminar series on think tanks and the roles they can fulfil as a way of encouraging them to get involved.

Of course, where no university think tanks are present or where their capacity is quite low a more concerted effort should be made to either rebuild them or establish closer links between universities and non-university think tanks. In Zambia, for example, the student chapters of the Economic Association of Zambia facilitates internships in think tanks for their members. But if funders provided funds, via the think tanks, to support this the effect this could have on the future capacity of think tanks would be enhanced.

In Serbia, too, the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies has a fantastic internship programme informally linked to the Faculty of Political Science. They don’t just use their interns for data collection or analysis (or coffee-making) but have also designed a lecture series that includes sessions on think tanks, research methods, and communications. Most of their interns then go on to work for other organisations in Serbia and take what they learned with them.

This kind of experience is invaluable for encouraging a greater number of highly competent young graduates to join think tanks and for giving them the skills that they and their future employers will need.