Are think tanks facing a credibility crisis?

28 February 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

Think tanks are facing a credibility crisis. But it is bigger and broader than they
think, affecting scientific research more broadly. There is also a growing lack of trust towards knowledge-focused institutions in general.

This sounds ominous and worrying, but it is also an opportunity. A crisis, though difficult, does not necessarily imply a negative outcome. A crisis is a turning point. A critical phase in the state of affairs in which change is impending. A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. To decide on our course of action, however, we need to step back and ask:

  • What does a credibility crisis mean?
  • What is fuelling this crisis?
  • How did we reach this point?

Credibility is relational and it entails trust and believability. To be credible, an organisation or person needs someone to trust and believe in them. Without the other, the object in question neither lacks nor has credibility. A credible person or organisation is trusted to have relevant expertise, and believed to be able and willing to provide information that is correct and true. Credibility is also constructed by the interaction of the qualities and current circumstances of a person or organisation.

With this in mind, the credibility crisis that think tanks are facing is essentially a relationship problem, where partners have lost trust in each other. Until that trust is rebuilt, the relationship will not move forward.

There are many things that have precipitated this crisis. Fake news, fake think tanks, bad and fake research abound. The shadow of misinformation seems to be everywhere and the credibility of experts is being increasingly questioned. This is producing ambiguity about who the experts are, who is responsible for generating and sharing information, and ultimately who we can believe.

And scientific credibility is under the spotlight too. Though ‘the sciences’ have always been linked with objectivity and neutrality, recent allegations and evidence about bad research have tarnished this reputation. If scientists can be wrong, use flawed methods or data, and even alter methods or results to suit the wishes of powerful donors, then credibility is truly at risk.

In the case of think tanks, the are several factors that are fuelling this credibility crisis. Accusations (and evidence) of lack of transparency are at the forefront, as are unreported conflicts of interests that might influence their research and advice. Questions around intellectual independence are also being raised, including accusations of lobbying on behalf of corporate interests and allegations that think tanks are vehicles for foreign powers to influence domestic policy.

The case of the New America Foundation is a good example. In August 2017, it fired a researcher who had criticised Google (one of the its funders). The think tank received criticism for the action, for how they handled the crisis and for and the lack of intellectual independence it showed. All of this has undermined their credibility, but also affected the credibility of the sector in general. What is more, it feeds the distrust that some sections of the public have for all research centres.

In January 2018, the policy and evidence sector suffered another blow with allegations that changes in the methodology of the World Bank´s Doing Business rankings were unfairly depicting Chile. There were additional accusations that the report’s methods had been manipulated for political reasons to depict the country more negatively under the socialist president Michelle Bachelet. This has brought into question the credibility of the World Bank, which even though not a think tank, is a major player in the global knowledge sector. Research quality is foundational to the credibility of any research-oriented organisation. When it is compromised, the building collapses. In this case, either researchers at the World Bank made a methodological error (expertise suffers) or they did it on purpose (trust suffers).

The wider crisis of trust in which the credibility crisis is set stems from, and is fuelled by, the post-truth world we are in. Where trust in facts and evidence is eroding. The recently released Edelman trust barometer shows that trust in government, media, business and non-governmental organisations has plummeted in the United States, though interestingly it has risen in China. It is the first time this has happens without an actual external crisis. What is more, a total of 20 out of the 28 surveyed countries now fall into the ‘distrust’ category – the first time this has happened since the survey started 14 years ago. Trust in media has seen a particularly dramatic decline, a trend blamed on the rise of fake news, leading to confusion about what is fact and what is fiction.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The barometer also shows a renewed confidence in experts and academics. It highlights the fact that people are concerned about fake news and want to find ways to stop it. In this sense, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But how do we get there?

The raison d’etre of think tanks is to carry out research that informs policy (and practice). For this to happen, they need to be perceived as credible sources of information. A focus on restoring trust is therefore imperative. The growing push for more transparency in the sector will help in this effort, as will investment in better communications that meets the needs of key audiences.

Ultimately, the public needs to know that think tanks are intellectually independent through information on who funds them, what networks they belong to, who is on their board, what affiliations their staff have and how the quality of research is ensured. But let us not forget that organisations are comprised of people and it is they who have the power to help bring credibility back.

The crisis is here. What are we going to do about it?