A national ranking of influence: Chinese and American models

25 March 2015

Sometimes we like rankings and sometimes we do not like rankings, here at On Think Tanks. We are not sure. They certainly get us all talking about think tanks, so maybe, that’s good enough.

We certainly don’t love global rankings. We believe that think tanks are political and therefore bound to a political space when it comes to assessing their ‘quality’.

In China

Somewhat unreported, the 2014 Chinese Think Tank Influence Report was released on Jan 15th, 2015.

This raking marks the start of a national drive to develop new and better think tanks with Chinese characterises, as demanded by President Xi Jinping. The ranking aims to be as objective as possible:

The evaluation system adopted four influence indicators: professional influence, government influence, social influence and international influence. For example, international influence is calculated based on the frequency of cooperation with international organizations, the number of collaborative foreign think tanks, and the number of speeches given on international forums by the think tank’s main researchers.

But recognising how hard this is:

These objective indicators were combined with experts’ opinion to determine the final rankings.

The results are broken down into rankings by types of think tanks (for instance, governmental, university affiliated, non-governmental), and types of influence (professional influence, governmental influence, social influence, and international influence). I think this last aspect of the ranking is what stands out.

At the Premio PODER Award we struggle to compare between think tanks when we find that they have had different types of influence. Some may be able to change government policy but others can change public opinion. What is ‘best’? Or ‘better”?

In the US

Back in the US the Center of Global Development has published an update of 2013’s attempt to measure, as objectively as possible, think tanks influence. Alan GelbAnna DiofasiNabil Hashmi and Lauren Post have published a Think Tank Public Profile Ranking.

They use social media fans, web traffic, incoming links, media mentions, and scholarly citations to assess think tanks public profile -and adjust for budget size (this is why Brookings does not come first). They rank US and international development think tanks from across the world.

They take the approach that:

think tanks’ ability to garner public attention is likely to be a good marker of their influence and potential for impact.

The ranking process has led to some interesting analysis and findings:

  • Social media in trending -without an exception, think tanks are rapidly adopting and investing in social media. As a consequence they have increase their reach: “The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace increased their Twitter followers sevenfold (from 20,191 to 148,200). CSIS increased its followers tenfold from fewer than 10,000 followers in 2013 to more than 100,000.”
  • News media does not suffer from a rise in social media -news media mentions for think tanks has also increased: “In 2014, media mentions of all 36 think tanks in our comparison have gone up, with several think tanks more than doubling their citations in the news media.” This is a significant finding.
  • Citations may not be the best indicator for think tanks influence as it fails to tell a consistent story -or maybe, that makes it the right indicator. The number of citations that a think tank gets can be explained by many factors. But the indicator may be more relevant for individual papers or researchers than for the organisations: “For example, eight out of 264 Brookings publications in 2012 accounted for about two-thirds of the organization’s total citations.”

It is not surprising that the American model is driven by think tanks public profiles. The rankings are different but the US-only ranking and the Chinese ranking provide opportunities for intra- and inter-national comparisons that the global UPENN ranking doesn’t.

The ranking of think tanks at the global level is akin to trying to tell who is best between a swimmer, a sprinter or a footballer. It doesn’t work well. And it cannot work unless one makes it clear that those voting do so entirely subjectively. And even then they work best when they are awarded at the national level (think: BBC Sports Personality of the Year v African Personality of the Year).