A new think tank model for higher quality, independence and transparency

26 October 2011

Lately there has been a rather lively discussion about the role and value of think tanks in the UK. George Monbiot, a journalist who often writes for The Guardian, has challenged their transparency. Prospect Magazine only recently announced the winners of its annual think tank award. And there have been some discussions on the way think tanks behave in relation to their funders’ own interests –are they nothing more than PR vehicles?

An article by Dr Andy Williamson takes this forward by challenging the current dominant model for think tanks in the UK. He argues that if think tanks are to have greater impact then they must embrace three principles:

1. Quality

The nature of many current think-tanks means that work agendas are driven by funding rather than the need (or desire) for good quality research. Funding also restricts the quality of staff available. Critical thinking is becoming critically endangered.

With a background in commercial consultancy, I know how the ‘big firm’ model works; send in the partners to pitch then, on day one, a two-days-in-the-job graduate walks in the door with a manual under their arm. Are think-tanks any different? In a word… No. They are over-reliant on low-cost junior staff to do a lot of the heavy lifting. This means either junior researchers or, more often than not, interns. Think-tanks are staffed by a sea of young, eager researchers all keen to make careers in government and politics.

Williamson is very critical of think tanks overeliance on young staff to do the work. He argues that they lack the most important thing required for critical thinking: experience. And this lack of experience means that they are unable to translate thought into action. I agree. But at the same time, I think that think tanks can be a place where young researchers can gain experience, provided that they are given the right support and that this is not rushed. I cringe at 25 year-olds with Fellow or Senior on their name cards. There is no rush.

2. Balance or independence

More insidious, more dangerous because it’s about direct funding (the latter point is ultimately about indirect funding), research funded by government departments, through commercial sponsorship, donations or from trusts presents a danger. How much does the need to maintain a funding stream impact on one’s ability to be totally honest in research? I can certainly say I have felt pressured to dilute findings that might be seen as critical of a funder. Something I refuse to do if the data supports the argument I’m making but this position needs to be made clear to the funder in advance.

Williamson is right in demanding greater upfront transparency. We know that the reality of think tanks is not the romantic ideal of the large endowment that lets them do as they please. But independence (or autonomy) comes from being transparent about it: up-front. As Goran Buldioski argued in this blog, if a think tank is being objective then why would it not want to disclose who is funding it? I share his concern for government funding, too. Particularly if it is tied to conditions and not long term enough to be free from political and personal influences.

3. Transparency

It is important to be upfront and honest about why research is being undertaken; who commissioned it and why. It is equally important to be clear and open about how data has been collected, not just from where (and who) but how the data was derived. Issues of method and analysis are important to us understanding what research is trying to say.

Publicly funded academic research usually requires the datasets to be published in an online repository. How many think-tanks do this too, even when their research has been publicly funded? Some do, but more should consider it. It might be as simple as publishing raw survey data in Excel or SPSS file formats for other researchers to use. This can also be useful for checking the veracity of the findings – this is not something to be concerned about if you have followed good principles; just because I’ve re-analysed your data and come to a different conclusion it doesn’t mean your own analysis is wrong, it just means I’ve interpreted it differently.

Surely this is a good thing as it adds to the intellectual debate?

CGD has started to publish the data it uses in its work. They even have a policy for it. They’ve even published the policy online.This is a good example of think tanks making themselves accountable and recognising that while they might have arrived a particular conclusion, others may arrive at another. Research, as Williamson argues, is subjective.

As a good thinktanker, Williamson puts forward an alternative model for us to consider.

  1. Dump the Georgian architecture and draw in the best thinkers to solve the problems at hand: in other words, he argues for more funds being allocated towards attracting the best minds and worrying less about the think tank’s offices, its meeting rooms, its branding, etc.
  2. Embrace the digital world for collaboration and transparency

But the recommendations, I think, do not go far enough. One thing that I believe think tanks must be willing to do, and that few ever consider, is close. If think tanks were willing to close if, say, the funding they received was not free from political or ideological meddling, or if the work they were able to do was not of the highest level, or they were not allowed to focus on long term issues, etc., they would not feel compelled to walk down the path that Williamson is describing in his article. Independence comes from being able to walk away.