Ethical dilemmas for think tanks: Drawing bright lines

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Marília Ferreira da Cunha, digital communications officer at On Think Tanks.]

The first day of the OTT Conference: the 3rd online event opened with a keynote by Ruth Levine, CEO and Partner at IDinsight, on the ethical dilemmas for think tanks. The keynote was followed by a Q&A moderated by Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director of On Think Tanks.

Keynote: Ruth Levine (IDinsight)
Moderator: Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)

Key takeaways

In her keynote, Ruth reflects on the need for think tanks to be highly relevant in current policy debates. The challenge, she argues, is that it can be too easy to lose sight of the larger picture. Think tanks should consider their alignment to the governments they work with, or if they are better off allying themselves with opposing forces and being part of a larger shift in the policy space.

Admittedly, there is a standard discourse that think tanks are neutral- but everybody has ideologies. Transparency is a better approach than pretending to be neutral: it is better for think tanks to be clear from the start about what their belief is and what the role of governments is. 

Think tanks should also be transparent about their funding and their activities: there is no strong-enough argument not to disclose who your funders are. To ensure credibility, think tanks should consider diversification of funding sources. How can they do this without compromising the integrity of their research agenda? Think tank leaders should try to make the case to their funders that supporting research programmes and research agendas is preferred over supporting specific projects. This is not possible for every case, but it does allow for a compromise between funders and think tanks in which funders invest on a particular area of interest and allow think tanks to be more flexible about their agendas. 

As Ruth argues: think tanks are not powerless in their relations with funders. Think tanks are providing services and offering perspectives that are unique to them. Think tank leaders should own their power within that relationship and not make the assumption that it should be a submissive one.

From the chatbox


Centre for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) report on multiyear general operating support

Transparify Integrity Health Check 


When we start a project, in our think tank, with the sponsorship of another organisation, we might face gaps and challenges which are needed to be focused. These issues are not in the interest of the funder of the project. What are the best strategies to find an organisation that specifically addresses the problem we see?

It would be great to hear Ruth’s additional thoughts on accepting funding from non-democratic governments. Whilst we understand the ethical dilemma, others argue that it is the think tanks’ role to keep the communications channel open when governments stop talking to each other. A way of legitimising the project could be to bring democratic governments to the table as a joint effort.

Some think tanks are usually “shy” to advertise who their foreign funders are (democratic or not). They tend to be afraid that they are publicly acknowledging foreign pressure to pursue a specific agenda. At the same time, funders want (and need) to be acknowledged to justify their funding. What do you advise think tanks to do when walking this fine line? 

Funding diversification for think tanks is an important strategy to help think tanks manage tensions between different funders agendas and particular policy outcomes priorities, however, it can lead to mission creep. What are your views on how think tanks can stay true to their agendas while pursuing a diversified set of funder interests? 

Some of the ethical decisions that Ruth has discussed are not easy to resolve on a priori grounds. Since this is a group committed to evidence-informed decision making, wouldn’t it be a good idea to collect some evidence on how these decisions work out in practice? (i.e. some case studies).

What the video to find out how Ruth answered these questions.