Building the Case for Core Support

12 December 2011

As posted earlier in this blog, the Think Tank Initiative’s 2010-2011 annual report has just been released.

This report focuses on the work of the 51 think tanks supported by the Initiative, the contexts they operate in and how they are addressing their challenges.  By working closely with these think tanks, we have been able to document some of the common challenges they face – challenges around governance and leadership, retention and recruitment of researchers, meaningful engagement with policy actors, and long-term sustainability. These institutional issues, while key to their performance, are rarely accounted for in the planning and budgeting of individual projects or short-term consultancies.

The annual report gives examples on how core funding brings to an institution the ability to decide on what, when and how to invest their resources to face these challenges.  Following its publication and the recent posts on TTI (and its next head!) on this blog, I would like to offer an additional reflection on how the Initiative is starting to build empirical and reliable evidence to make a serious case for core, flexible, predictable support to think tanks.

It is widely assumed that think tanks are important.  They are so because they can enrich the thinking and implementation of better governance in the countries they operate in.  When the Initiative was created assertions such as the above were based on a few scoping studies led by the Hewlett Foundation as well as on IDRC’s experience supporting policy research in developing countries.  Three years later, there is still limited evidence to support this claim.

A first step in generating evidence is to generate data.  The Initiative is creating a database that contains quantitative and qualitative information on the institutions we fund. This data encapsulates the diversity of the think tanks: the big and the small, the new and the well-established, the research-focused and the advocacy-oriented, and so on. The data also captures information on their early achievements: from becoming a voice that informs public debate in a particular country to providing solid, robust evidence to back the development of transformative policies.   But this is only one side of the equation; we also needed to understand better the demand for policy research, so the Initiative carried out a polling exercise of the policy communities in which these institutions work (and will do so again in 3 years).

TTI therefore has and will continue to collect a large amount of information on both the supply and the demand side of policy research in (23) developing countries. Some of this data is exclusively for the use of the TTI supported institutions.   But most of it will be aggregated and will be made available to others interested in mining the data and building empirical evidence on think tanks.

We are embarking on a 10 year program and the field of knowledge regarding policy research institutions is emerging. Given the enormous potential for the role that think tanks play in national development processes, other fundamental but “unsearched” questions on success, failures and the many dimensions related to effective local research will be investigated.

Research in social science is a public good (at least most of it), and hence it is underfunded. We expect that TTI outputs, which will also be public goods, will help convince others that policy research must be supported.