Can think tanks ruled by the wealthy be really impartial?

2 April 2017
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

 ask this very important question in Inside Philanthropy+; but don’t quite get to answer it.

Their article focused on David Rubenstein and the Brookings Institution. Rubenstein is co-chair of the Board of Brookings, a patron of the think tank and, in case you were wondering, a billionaire founder of the private equity giant Carlyle Group.

Rubenstein is rather open about what he supports and funds. His website provides ample information about this. including a comprehensive list of philanthropic activities. A feature among the causes he supports are some labeled under ‘patriotic’: monuments and documents, mostly.

The site also provides information about this policy (and political) background, including past and present affiliations to think tanks and government. Rojc and Callahan conclude that:

Despite key jobs at the heart of American finance and policy research, Rubenstein isn’t overtly ideological, and that bodes well for Brookings’ nonpartisan reputation. But again, keep in mind the invisible boundaries that may circumscribe this institution’s work, given who oversees and funds the place. The hard reality is that no one likes to bite the hand that’s feeding them. In the case of Brookings, that remains a decidedly corporate hand.

Is not biting the hand the same as not being impartial?

Rojc and Callahan do not answer the question they pose. And this is an important one. Is it possible for think tanks to ultimately rely on the support of powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations while still remain independent from their influence? Is it possible to keep “the Establishment” both happy and on guard for what you will next say about them?

Many think tanks that refuse to seek out or accept funding from the private sector seem to think so; they cannot see a win-win situation for all. Other think tanks, who do receive funding from the private sector, prefer to keep this funding secret; they do not think others would understand or believe that they could remain impartial.

However, there are ways in which think tanks can limit the influence that power has over their agendas and their work:

  • Transparify’s Integrity Health Check for think tanks is a tool that can help think tanks to establish the boundaries of a healthy relationship with powerful funders and supporters.
  • Think tanks can follow rules like CIPPEC’s to limit the share of any single funder to encourage multiple views to contest each other.
  • Bruegel in Brussels takes que approach of developing and then publishing its intended research before seeking and/or securing funding for it. In this way, the centre takes ownership over the research agenda and almost forces its funders to take a more passive role; by funding it they accept Bruegel’s agency.
  • From Bruegel, too, there is a great simple way to address possible conflicts of interests: a declaration of interest. This, according to its website, is expected from all management and research staff. In a similar way, Chatham House has a gift registry to address potential conflicts from gifts that may be given to researchers on study trips or conferences.

There are many other ways to address these challenges. The point being that keeping the hand that fees you coming back while nibbling at it every once in a while (with the occasional bite, included) is possible.

Think tanks go to great lengths to develop these rules and tools precisely to make sure they can keep doing it.

Being fair to the poor; that is another matter

The second part of Rojc’s and Callahan’s question refers to the nature of think tanks’ leadership: wealthy. This is a concern that has been raised about think tanks for a very long time. Are they elitist institutions? Who do they serve?

Some of the fist foreign policy think tanks were set up precisely to keep the public from meddling into such a delicate matter. Learned Societies, such as the Royal Society of the Arts in the UK or the Sociedad de Amantes del País in Peru, the predecessors of think tanks around the world, were established by upper-middle and upper class intellectuals who, among other things, had the money and time to spend discussing the latests inventions and ideas and their application to society.

The immediate predecessors of think tank in the United States, the civic associations of cities such as Chicago in the lat 1800s, provide an insight into the role of think tanks as levellers of power or, at least, connectors.

These associations had two key characteristics: 1) they were concerned with very practical problems: crime, corruption, waste collection, etc. and 2) they brought together policymakers, practitioners, researchers and the public (possibly the more informed and better connected public, for sure). These think tanks were temporary and focused on real problems -the kind that would affect the common public.

The think tanks that emerged in the early 1900s formed as the second characteristic of these associations was put aside. Policymaking, research and philanthropy became increasingly profesional with policymaking and policy analysis bodies developing in government, the establishment of new foundations and the professionalisation of policy advice, first through thematic studies associations and then through public policy institutes.

Over the last few years, however, think tanks have had to turn their attention to the general public. Not only is it gaining a space in public policy it is also turning against experts and think tanks. If they with to secure their place on the table think tank will have to demonstrate their value to the public and this may very well involve biting the hand that feeds them every once in a while.

But other approaches could be considered, too:

  • Choosing and developing research agendas carefully to address the problems and challenges faced by the poor and those disadvantaged by the current economic, political and social status quo.
  • Seeking alliances with grassroots, NGOs and other more representative bodies of society in a genuine attempt to inform their agendas and recommendations.
  • Communicating to the border public instead of just a few key policymakers. Think tanks like the New Economic Foundation have been rather good at this. By grounding their research on a practical application of their ideas they ensure that their first audience is made up of their intended beneficiaries.
  • NEF and newer think tanks such as the Swiss foreign policy think tank foraus, offer a new business model of grassroots think tanks that may support linkages with the general public more effectively.
  • Exploring new forms of communication to reach out to the public. Video offers an important opportunity in this respect.
  • The Fellowship model of the RSA is a way in which the organisation has ensured that its attention is well balanced between those in power and those in society. While the fellowship may be seen to be an elitist tool it is in fact quite more open than others. Fellows come from all sorts of backgrounds: academia, policymaking, business, arts, grassroots, etc. The fellowship is also a good way to raise funds that would otherwise have to be raised by approaching a few corporations or individuals.

So, in my opinion, think tanks can be rules by the wealthy and still be impartial and mindful of the needs of those whose livelihoods are affected by the very system that has made the wealthy wealthy. They should not be expected to be crusaders for change but can be, if they so choose, key players in efforts to tackle injustice and inequality.