How the pandemic is impacting think tanks: overview of OTT survey results

8 June 2020

How has the pandemic affected think tanks? This is one of the questions that the On Think Tanks (OTT) survey has looked at. More than 100 people+working at think tanks around the world responded, giving a good overview on their outlook.

Split views on the future for think tanks

Respondents had split views about the future for think tanks in their respective countries in the next year – mostly pessimistic, or cautiously optimistic, with some downright optimism mixed in. 

A bit less than one third of the respondents thought that most think tanks will suffer big setbacks and only a handful will do well. About 10% thought that most think tanks will ‘suffer greatly’ and that some may have to close or downsize significantly.

This pessimistic view, from a total of about 41% of the respondents, was countered by about 58% that had a broadly optimistic outlook. The plurality, 47%, said that ‘there will be some setbacks but most centers will recover in the end’.

There was downright optimism too: 7% thought that ‘most think tanks will benefit from this crisis’, and a handful of respondents reported that in their view ‘this is not a crisis for think tanks’.

Over half report negative impacts now

On their current situation, a total of just above 60% reported a negative impact, of varying degrees of intensity. For now, 45% thought that ‘we will manage in the end’. Some 16% were ‘very concerned’ about their future. These concerns seem to be particularly concentrated in West Africa, though a few respondents from the UK and Southeast Asia and one from Central America also reported strong worries.

31% said that the crisis had not negatively affected their organisation, besides having to work remotely. Another 9% said that they were even ‘doing all right’, with ‘additional demand and support for our work’. The upbeat responses came primarily – but not exclusively – from Western Europe.

Think tanks reported significant practical impact: more than 40% said that there were issues with funding, it either not materialising or that funds were under strain. More than 30% said that the staff was ‘stressed, overwhelmed, feeling isolated or confused’, and nearly 20% described a ‘productivity loss’.

As has been reported elsewhere, more than 20% said that ‘the civic space has suddenly closed due to the policies pursued by our government’. The pandemic has taken a toll on the research agenda: about 20% said that the research agenda now had ‘lost its track’.

Some respondents outlined current challenges in their written survey comments: ‘our current financial position is solid but we are seeing our pipeline of donor commitments diminish or delay.’

Next to these funding concerns, several respondents also mentioned the challenges of working while homeschooling children. Other respondents highlighted that working from home cannot be taken for granted: from Nigeria, one respondent reported challenges with the electricity supply, and several said that their slow Internet made working remotely difficult.

Yet even large institutions, who said that they could support their team, mentioned that they ‘still experience some staff, particularly the mid-level and junior staff not coping with working remotely. We have noticed some inactivity among some staff.’ Another shift seems to be that the pandemic ‘has massively increased the load on communications staff’.

Common think tank responses

As for the ongoing response, more than 70% say that they sent their team to work from home and that they are investing in remote working technologies.

More than 60% reported having to cancel all events and all travel.

More than 60% also said they had ‘reviewed their research strategy for the year to ensure its relevance to COVID-19 and the crisis’.

More than 40% said that they had talked to their funders to request further support or to renegotiate contracts.

Nearly 30% said that they had ‘convened our boards to help us make decisions’. It’s worth noting that the majority of respondents were senior leadership (52%) or board members (10%), and roughly one quarter were researchers (23%), thus there may have been differing levels of awareness of the management response.

OTT’s role

Several respondents saw a role for OTT. One suggested: ‘With its international network, OTT can monitor the situation and create an early warning system which shows where think tanks are under threat. Similar mechanisms exist for civil society organisations, so it might be a good idea to set up something similar for think tanks.’

About the survey

This, in a nutshell, are the main results from a survey that OTT conducted from 7 April to 25 May, with the bulk of the answers coming in mid-April.

At the time of writing, the survey had 114 respondents and likely is representative of thinktankers that are interested in engaging with international practice. Respondents were recruited through OTT’s networks. To preserve anonymity, OTT withheld the respondents and their institutions’ identity. It is possible that particular institutions are represented several times.

The survey was truly global: it had participants from more than 50 countries. The UK had most respondents (9), followed by India and the US (7 each), Nigeria (6), Kenya (5), Peru (5), Pakistan (4), Tanzania (4), Armenia, Bolivia, El Salvador, Germany, Senegal and South Africa (3 each) and many more countries, ranging from Algeria via Iran and Myanmar to Zimbabwe.

The survey also collected extensive written input, which – like all the data – is available for analysis on request.

Looking beyond the pandemic

One respondent provided this comment, which may be a fitting way of looking beyond the current pandemic:

This is not all negative. Policymakers are stressed and confused, and that makes them ready to listen.  You just need to maintain access to them (in their home isolation). Some aspects of the pandemic are strong reminders, revelations you might say, of general failures of good policymaking, such as paying heed to expert advice, not looking at the long term and understanding second and third order consequences, lack of contestation in the public space, and more. These revelations will provide for more openness to address other [critical] issues, including global overheating [among others, more].

Hopefully OTT’s work can help to, indeed, increase the impact of think tanks in the future.

Download the report.