A Think Tank History: A view from India

6 August 2014

[Editor’s note: this post was written by Neeta Krishna, Associate Professor, Father C Rodrigues Institute of Management Studies, Navi Mumbai. It is part of a series of articles commissioned by the Aditi project at CSTEP which aims to capture information/ anecdotes/data from various Think Tanks. The main objective of Aditi is to discuss institutional issues of common interest such as funding, human resources, research capacity, institutional issues of policy research etc.] 

A hundred or so years ago, everyone had a Think Tank, which they carried right inside their head! It took another fifty years more for this somewhat irreverent but delightfully appropriate term for a person’s brain, to morph from a symbol of individual to group intelligence, thinking and sometimes, action.

The earliest institutions that today are called Think Tanks emerged in 19th Century Great Britain and USA. An early example is The Franklin Institute (USA, 1824) whose founding purpose was to honor Benjamin Franklin and advance the usefulness of his inventions. The origins of The Royal United Services Institute(UK 1831) which currently describes itself  an independent Think Tank engaged in defence and security research, can be traced to a call in 1829 for a ‘strictly scientific and professional’ approach to the study of military affairs. The Fabian Society (UK, 1884) claims to be Britain’s oldest political Think Tank. By and large these 19th Century institutions, as well as the early 20th Century institutions that followed were established by the urban elite – people who believed in the need for ideas backed by research and analysis who had, or could find the means to fund these activities.

The early 20th century saw the creation of several such institutions including The Brookings Institution(USA) which traces its beginnings to 1916, when a group of reformers founded the first private organization devoted to the fact-based study of national public policy issues. The first institution, perhaps, to be called a ‘Think Tank’ is the RAND Corporation, USA (Acronym for Research and Development) (origin 1948) set up to promote scientific, educational, and  charitable purposes for the public welfare and security of the United States. The term ‘Think Tank’ itself came from World War II slang for the rooms where strategists discussed war planning!

The 1970’s and 1980’ saw the birth of Think Tanks working on environment and sustainable development and the emergence of grass roots level Think Tanks, perhaps because international funding agencies believed that Policy goals would be better delivered through involvement of civil society, and gave increasing importance to considering local realities. The number of Think Tanks grew in the 20th Century especially in the period after 1980. This period saw their growth in ‘emerging economies’ like India and China, and greater internationalization of many US Think Tanks.

Today a diverse set of institutions call themselves or are called Think Tanks. Most, but not all, are engaged in Public Policy Research. Most Think Tanks claim to be autonomous institutions.

While many Think Tanks try to generate some revenue, generally they are ‘not for profit’ organizations. However, ‘For Profit’ Think Tanks also exist today. There are even some large private corporations that use the title ‘Think Tank’ for in-house ‘idea factories’ that help create their own future.

What motivates the founding or creation of a Think Tank? A Think Tank might, for example, take birth to bill a government’s felt need for Research to guide policy, or be created by private individuals or organizations determined to fill a ‘research for policy’ deficit, or by those who believe that knowledge based action is required in an area of government policy; some Think Tanks are founded to espouse a particular point of view, others are non partisan. The founding of a Think Tank might be motivated by passion or by hard reason. Yet stories from different Think Tanks suggest that those that have done well have had founding leaders who passionately believed in the purpose and cause of the Institution.

Think Tank Boom?

A 2013 Global Survey on Think Tanks, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania (USA) puts the number of Think Tanks at 6826 globally, of which 1200 are in Asia. China and India hold 2nd and 4th place, respectively, in number of Think Tanks. Many Think Tanks have moved beyond national boundaries, and have a presence in many countries.

So why have recent years seen a Think Tank boom? There are many reasons for it:

Think Tanks in India

India is credited with having the widest range of Think Tanks in South Asia. It also is fourth, globally, in the number of Think Tanks. Though some Indian Think Tanks, for example, the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) were established before India’s independence in 1947, the early post-independence ones were close to government, and had a strong impact on policy.

For example, Prof. PC Mahalanobis, founder of ISI, was instrumental in the production of the blueprint for India’s Second Five-year Plan. Their mission could be as generic as ‘need for economic research ‘ (IEG) or ‘the need to build a body of knowledge by undertaking comparative and cross-disciplinary research on social processes, goals and policies’ (CSDS, Delhi).

The 1970’s and 1980’ saw the birth of Think Tanks working on environment and sustainable development and a genre of grass roots level, action based Think Tanks emerged, perhaps because international funding agencies believed that Policy goals would be better delivered through involvement of civil society, and gave increasing importance to considering local realities.

Economic reforms in India , starting 1991, saw the birth of action based Think Tanks, supported social movements against globalization and its symbols, i.e. such as big dams, multinational corporations, special economic zones, land acquisitions, etc. Other Think Tanks were set up to counter their actions and promote research in the cause of the government’s policies.

A 2011 report speaks about India’s vibrant landscape of Think Tanks capable of engaging with critical research. Think Tanks’ autonomy remains largely intact in India, because it is a Democracy, and presents an environment that respects (or at least allows) dissent and multiple view-points.

The second part of this series deals with think tank functions.