Article review: Proximity and distance – think tanks handling the independence paradox

29 March 2021

Think tanks need to be seen as independent to be credible. At the same time, they sometimes need to compromise their independence to get funding or to influence policy. This ‘independence paradox’ is the subject of a recent journal article by Katarzyna Jezierska and Adrienne Sörbom. The authors explore how this dual proximity and distance is handled by think tanks in Poland and Sweden. They find that the main strategies for asserting independence are maintaining distance from their funders, creating an apolitical image and constructing an affinity to academia and independence research.

The study

Jezierska and Sörbom carried out 35 interviews with thinktankers (mostly CEOs and directors of research) in 21 think tanks – nine in Poland and 12 in Sweden. They also conducted content analysis from the 21 think tanks’ websites. In Sweden, there are approximately 40 think tanks and around 60 in Poland and, in both countries, they cover a broad ideological spectrum. Rather than comparing these national contexts, the authors use their data to establish common patterns.

Main findings

The authors argue that independence (in any of its forms) is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a means towards gaining sufficient credibility and legitimacy to be able to influence policymaking. In order to achieve this independence, think tanks need donors and policymakers but they don’t want to be seen as dependent on them, so they strategically navigate relations and proximity to these actors.

The authors identify three types of resources that the think tanks draw upon to maintain an image of independence:

  • relational (such as affiliations with other actors),
  • material (such as funding), and
  • symbolic (such as their academic image).

The authors organise their analysis in terms of three types of independence:

Economic independence

To be economically independent, think tanks must be able to state their positions without needing permission from their donors. The think tanks studied considered themselves to be economically independent, since their donors did not set their agendas, nor influence their publications.

To maintain an image of independence, the think tanks studied displayed two main strategies.

First, to avoid receiving money from specific donors. For instance, one Polish think tank avoids funding from the state, whereas another refuses foreign funds in an effort to maintain ‘political-intellectual sovereignty’.

Second, to ‘decouple’ the donors from the think tank’s work, even when many think tanks depend on short-term projects that are intensely monitored by funders. Decoupling is linked to how much the donors monitor or direct the think tank’s activities, and this is very much related to the length of grants: think tanks with stable, long-term relations with funders tend to experience less monitoring while those who rely on mid-range grants are more likely to be closely monitored and, thus, in a more dependent position. To mitigate this dependence, some think tanks choose either very short-term sources of funding or try to diversify as much as possible.

Political independence

Interestingly, political independence is treated by the think tanks studied as needing little explanation. Many think tanks find it sufficient to simply state (for example on their websites) that they are politically independent without specifying how.

In order to show that their results are not influenced by their political relations, think tanks use two divergent strategies.

One is to present an apolitical image by avoiding mention or downplaying relations to political actors (such as political parties or trade unions).

The other is to proactively use their links to political actors to convey that they can influence policymaking directly through those ties. Several think tank directors explained that, while their close ties to parties helped them be part of policy discussions, their work is still neutral and independent of political agendas.

Academic independence

All the think tanks interviewed claimed high academic integrity. The main strategies used to communicate this are: mimicking academic labels (such as ‘research units‘, ‘fellows’ or ‘seminars’), having affiliations with universities and publishing in reputable journals. While their research results may later be used for policy recommendations, they present them as apolitical and impartial.

My review

For thinktankers, this article provides new insight into the ‘independence paradox’, and its framework of three categories of independence is a useful resource for think tanks to reflect on the challenges they face related to independence and the strategies they could use to navigate the paradox. Although, the article is aimed at a more academic audience, with the goal of providing a theoretical model, and so its more practical use in terms of ‘best practice’ for thinktankers may be limited.

In studying two countries, with different policy contexts, it’s also interesting to see that the think tanks face similar challenges and use comparable strategies to build an independent image. All in all, this is an interesting addition to the growing literature on think tank credibility, which is crucial for think tanks who want to effectively inform policy.