June 9, 2020

Opinion

High spirits and low funding: how think tanks view the current crisis

The impact of COVID-19 on think tanks and research institutes will vary across the globe, from country to country, and from sector to sector. National governments have offered wildly different policies with regards to funding certain areas of their economies, and international funding has reduced dramatically as resources are concentrated on the home fronts.

This is especially problematic for think tanks and other educational non-profit organisations, as funding and donations represent a large portion of their income. Therefore, it is vital to conduct research into the experiences of think tanks around the world, in order to understand the issues that different institutions face and to be able to provide solutions, so that collectively we can maintain a healthy and varied assemblage of research organisations.

The On Think Tanks (OTT) survey has made an excellent start to the process of diagnosing the issues that think tanks face, and are likely to face, in the events and aftermath of COVID-19.

The survey data at the time of writing this, includes feedback from representatives of 113 think tanks from around the world on how they have been affected by COVID-19, and how they and their governments have been responding to the crisis.

Given the historic importance of the social sciences in combatting global pandemics,  it is disappointing that 67% of the think tanks stated that their governments had not, at the time of answering, announced or provided any form of financial assistance to the sector (which encompasses think tanks, universities and non-governmental organisations).

Indeed, only 4% of the respondents were in think tanks that had received direct, governmental, non-conditional, financial support.

A further 21% stated that they had received some form of financial assistance, albeit indirectly or conditional. Indirect benefits include governmental coverage of a portion of income to help all organisations cover the salaries of low-income employees. The conditions of financial support likely compel think tanks to conduct research concerning COVID-19. However, the financial benefits of complying with such conditions could be offset by the costs of redirecting research efforts, or in the lost income from cancelling existing non-coronavirus related research projects, especially those involving international fieldwork.

Despite this oversight by national governments around the world to fund the research sector, it is encouraging to see that spirits remain high within the social science community. Over half, 57%, of the 113 think tank survey respondents believe either that the majority of think tanks will eventually recover despite some short-term setbacks; that most think tanks will benefit from the current situation; or that COVID-19 does not represent a crisis for the industry.

Incredibly, 61% of these think tanks with broadly positive outlooks for the future of the research sector are in countries in which the governments have not announced or provided financial assistance. This suggests that their attitudes remain positive despite financial difficulties and not because of the support they have, or have not, received. Only 10% believe that think tanks and other research bodies will suffer significantly, potentially even resulting in closures.

However, whilst a positive attitude is important and, thankfully, currently present among the majority of think tanks, nothing will help these bastions of learning and research like full financial assistance.

In the immediate term, think tanks will need to do their best to refocus their efforts on providing research on the coronavirus in order to be as eligible as possible for the available funding.

For think tanks in developing countries, the future remains unclear due to the high reliance on state and international funding, both of which are currently under immense stress.

It is also important that all research bodies in the social sciences acknowledge their own vital role in the continuing global struggle, whilst also maintaining an awareness of the overall health of the social science community.

If different think tanks do not support others, or if research bodies do not uplift other institutions that are struggling, we may see a shrinking of the research community as a whole. It is imperative that this does not happen, because a weak social science community can only sustain weak research institutions and think tanks, and currently the world needs the insights, stimulation and escapism so often provided by the humanities and social sciences.

About the author:

Ed Biggins:  Head of research at International Development Research Network (IDRN)

Read more from: Ed Biggins

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