Corporate interests and think tanks: an overview of current debates

28 April 2014
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

[Editor’s note: This post was first published by Transpirify, an initiative that is part of the family of On Think Tanks LabTransparify provides the first-ever global rating of the financial transparency of 150+ major think tanks. Transparify is using a robust rating methodology, assigning five stars to the most transparent institutions. The aim is to improve the impact and the credibility of policy research, by making it more accountable.]

This is a question that concerns many think tanks across the world. To be sustainable they have to court the private sector (this is where the money is, after all), whether directly or indirectly by means of their foundations. But, as any half-baked economics think tanks would know: there is no such thing as a free lunch. So: how to get funded and remain independent (or at least intellectually autonomous)?

Transparify, a new initiative led by Hans Gutbrod and Co (and supported by On Think Tanks -we are always looking for new ideas) tackles this issue head on with a simple proposition: transparency will set you free. Many think tanks that claim to be independent because they do not take money from corporations take, instead, funds from their governments or from foreign Aid agencies that they are then incapable of questioning in public. And even more who claim to be free from corporate interests delve into the world of consultancies from time to time (and often more often than they would like to say) to pay the bills -and a bit more.

The following post provides an introduction to an annotated bibliography developed by the Transparify team that is worth having a look at:

How and why do corporations fund think tanks? How do think tanks manage potential conflicts of interest? How transparent and traceable is corporate funding to think tanks?In order to answer these questions, Transparify has located, compiled and reviewed dozens of media stories and research papers. Today, we release the results of our work, an annotated bibliography on “Corporate Interests and Think Tanks”. This is the fourth and last in our series of think tank bibliographies.

Most authors suggest that many corporations fund think tanks out of strategic self-interest. For example,financial industry players in both the US and the UK are thought to systematically support think tanks that produce work that furthers their sponsors’ agendas within a context characterised by intensive lobbying efforts across multiple fronts. Corporations’ possible influence on energy policy and climate change debates via their funding of think tanks has drawn particular attention. For example, one author claims that “climate change denial” by think tanks has been funded via trusts that enabled their donors to remain anonymous and untraceable despite over one hundred million dollars allegedly passing through such channels. Another retorts that the renewable energy industry too has vested interests, and that it sometimes promotes and defends these interests by… you guessed it… funding policy wonks. A third observer alleges that calls for financial disclosure by think tanks engaged in climate change debates have often been one-eyed as well as one-sided. (Here at Transparify, we simply believe that all think tanks should fully disclose who funds them, regardless of the policy stances that they take.)

Possible conflicts of interest also lurk when think tanks weigh in on questions of war and peace. In a recent guest blog on our website, Gin Armstrong explored such possible conflicts of interest that may have been at play when think tank experts with defence industry ties took to the airwaves in 2013 to discuss US military strikes against Syria. In recent days, she has voiced similar concerns with regard to policy advice being proffered on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Mind you, in an industry dependent on public sector contracts that is notorious for its revolving doors, even public funding for think tankshas not been immune against suspicions of self-interested dealings.Does the tobacco industry really employ think tanks as mercenaries to fight on its behalf? Do car manufacturers really pay think tanks to talk governments into bailing them out with public funds? Indeed, can any think tank still accept funding from any source without immediately coming under suspicion of having been “bought” by some public or private vested interest?

We at Transparify don’t have the answers. For us, this little media review yields one conclusion: the think tank community may soon face a comprehensive crisis of credibility. If current trends continue, even the most sophisticated and methodologically scrupulous policy research outfits will find it hard to get their findings, ideas and policy recommendations taken at face value.In an environment increasingly characterised by finger pointing, suspicion and paranoia, think tanks committed to intellectual independence and excellence in research need a way to actively signal to policy makers and the media that they deserve their trust and respect.

Transparify’s aim is to provide think tanks with a tool for signalling their credibility: a policy research institution publicly recognized for its exemplary financial transparency can hardly be accused of harbouring “hidden” agendas.

(For your reference, the bibliography discussed above is accessible here.)