A new idea: do not fund think tanks

20 November 2011

Here is an idea for think tank funders: do not fund them.

I’ve been thinking of this for some time. As more and more funds are being channeled to think tanks in developing (and many least developed) countries this might come as a surprise; but I think that more funds for think tanks (and I stress: in some cases) may not be the best way forward.

What I propose is that before funding think tanks in any given country donors ask a few important questions and consider alternatives.

Think tanks are important institutions -I would not be publishing a blog on think tanks if I did not think so. They are, in some cases, indispensable. However, think tanks cannot exist in a vacuum. Think tanks, as Tom Medvetz would have argued, are boundary organisations that define themselves by their differences and similarities with others. They need a strong academia from which to draw skilled researchers and ideas; they need a strong media with which to reach the general public; they need a strong political system and policymaking institutions to act as intelligent consumers and often competitors in the market of ideas; a healthy private sector that both helps to bring about change and provides the surplus wealth that may fund think tanks’ work; etc.

And of course, just as they need them, think tanks can support them, too.

In some cases, when all these other institutions are absent or are simply not strong enough, funding think tanks alone could be, in my view, a waste of valuable resources and have negative consequences on the think tanks themselves. And I think of it a bit as running before learning to walk.

For applied research funders (research focused on policy and intended to have an impact on policymaking), options can be rather limited. They are not in the business of strengthening the media, the public sector or the private sector. Although bilateral and multilateral agencies that do have the capacity to do so should consider how their research funding programmes or initiatives link up with initiatives focused on these other institutions. And this should be done at the country level, at least.

Applied research funders however do have an alternative to funding think tanks or other research-based policy influencing organisations or initiatives: funding academia.

If someone in the corporate sector was charged by their employer to expand operations in another country they would certainly start by assessing both the demand for your products and services as well the availability of inputs that they would need to carry out their business. If they worked for a bank, they would not plan to set up a 50 person office unless they knew they could find and hire sufficient bankers (economists, managers, financial experts, etc.). They would not want to find themselves unable to fill vacancies or having to offer salaries that were simply unsustainable in the long term. They would also no plan for a large scale operation if they knew that their market was limited. Savings and loans targets would have to be based on a detailed assessment of the market. Maybe, they would start small, slowly building up their market (informing potential clients about the products they offer, trying new services, slowly scaling-up operations) and possibly building their own workforce by employing promising young staff and training them on the job or offering to pay for their MBAs or MiFs.

At some point of course this is not something that can be solved by a company alone and governments will have to be made aware of the damage that under-investing in human capital can have in relation to their own efforts to attract foreign direct investment.

When it comes to funding research, and particularly research that is expected to influence policy, it appears as if some funders pay no or little attention to the market in which they plan to intervene and hence are investing (or in these cases, spending) much more than can be absorbed. Success then is almost just a matter of chance: where these other institutions exist or are being supported think tanks will succeed; but where they are not, think tanks may not fulfil their potential.

The problem of funding think tanks under these circumstances is that it can lead to overwhelming weak organisations, unsustainably high salaries (which cannot guarantee (high) quality research) or to poaching researchers (communicators and managers) from the private and public sectors, and from academia.

I would argue, therefore, that before funding think tanks in a particular country, donors should ask at least one question: who will work there? They could (and should) also ask questions about the rest of the research policy system like AusAid has done for Indonesia, but let’s start with this.

In other worlds, if more funds were made available to think tanks (or for setting up new think tanks), would it be possible for them to easily find highly qualified staff (researchers, managers, communicators, etc.) for them? Would their salaries be appropriate for the sector and country? For instance, would they be similar, in purchase power parity terms, to those paid in think tanks in the developed world, where the market of experts is more competitive? I think that a good proxy is to determine if salaries (or the cost of research in general) in nominal terms is at least equal (or more) to that paid in developed countries. (I should say that I am not suggesting that researchers, communicators and managers should not be paid good salaries. I’ve always said that although I worked for a charity I was not one. If we want quality we need to pay for it. But when salaries become so high that they are simply unsustainable for think tanks and distort the market of experts then we should be aware that this cannot be good for their purposes.)

If they are, then this is an indication that the most important input for a think tank, its researchers, is a scarce resource. High prices denote an excess in demand.

In these cases, the way to improve the role of research in policymaking may not necessarily be to fund think tanks directly (or to fund research, in general). Rather, it may be more appropriate to fund the formation of researchers.

What to do, then?

One thing that funders could consider is to allocate part or all of their budget to support the development of a strong tertiary education system. This will, of course, demand donor coordination (small amounts of money will only pay for a few workshops and this is definitely not what I am advocating for). Even if only a few young men and women get through the system at first, over time, the supply of competent professionals will continue to increase and think tanks (existing and new) will see themselves strengthened. Some graduates will probably join the public and private sectors (many will go back to teach and nurture the next generations that will have to make it through the system) -but increasingly, as more graduate, more will seek employment in think tanks.

In some cases I am talking about a Marshall Plan for tertiary education. If this is not possible for every country then maybe donors could pick a few universities to support and facilitate access to those from other countries in the region. They should not be afraid of working with private universities as well as public ones. The Chilean experience speaks for its self about the importance of a strong academia to produce the researchers that will then staff think tanks.

I must clarify that I think this funding should go to developing strong teaching and research departments on economic, management and business, sociology, law, engineering, architecture,  journalism, design, ICT, medicine, agriculture, veterinary, biology, physics, chemistry, political science, philosophy, mathematics, etc. Professions, in other words. I do not think it should go towards ‘development studies’ courses or the sort.

This also means that donors need to develop a sense of perspective and accept that change (policy and otherwise) takes time. Outcomes and outputs will need to be reviewed to reflect this. Patience is the key word.

Another option is for funders to demand (or expect) think tanks to hire staff from a larger market -a global market of researchers, communicators and managers. When corporations hire staff they cast their net as wide as they possibly can. This helps them to find the very best candidates out there but also ensures that the salaries they offer are not necessarily limited to their own local markets. Many think tanks do the same. It would not surprise anyone to find researchers from all over the world at ODI or CGD. Even U.S. and British based and focused think tanks employ foreigners. The director of the Centro de Investigacion de la Universidad del Pacifico (CIUP), Cynthia Sanborn, is from the U.S. but that has not stopped her from becoming a respected intellectual and now the director of a think tank in Peru. Although this is not the case for Peru, where sufficient competent researchers, communicators and managers are not available in a given country, funders should support their grantees by helping them to reach other markets -regional or global- where they might find the right candidates.

Here I must emphasise that this does not mean paying expat salaries (with housing and transport allowances) as is often assumed. There are many young and experienced think tankers who want the opportunity to work in other countries and who would be able to carry out the work and also share their skills (and most importantly their think tank experience) with their peers. They will be happy with decent salaries. So if think tanks cannot find the right staff in their own countries they should look for them in the region, or even other regions of the world. Some skills (economic or policy analysis, management, communications) are easily transferable across contexts.

In other contexts, where the market of experts is more developed and where more funds for think tanks can be easily transformed into more and better research and policy advice with little other support then, by all means, donors should go ahead and fund them. (Although,they should also keep an eye on the academic sector and certainly make sure to do all they can to support universities and ensure that they continue to produce competent researchers.)

In any case, though, research funders must pay more attention to mobilising domestic public and private funds for research (I’ll write more about this soon -but if anyone has ideas about how to do this please let me know).

In summary then: If there are not enough researchers, wait; invest in human capital first.