[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2019-2020: think tanks and technology on March 2020.]
Think tanks are a special kind of organisation that aim to produce knowledge to transform society. Knowledge is a public good – like health and clean air – that can be produced in science labs, classrooms, grassroots organisations or businesses. Although knowledge is perceived as abstract and intangible, it is ever present. Only with knowledge it is possible to use water streams to produce electricity or to learn about the human body to treat and prevent diseases or to understand how societies were in the past, how they work today, and how they could be in the future.
Think tanks work with society to understand these socioeconomic processes, as well as the culture, values and public policies that sustain them. And when these processes have a negative impact on development, think tanks produce new knowledge, gather the best evidence available, and work with different actors to foster change.
The role that think tanks play in fostering change is key, but is often neglected in science and technology systems: they link knowledge, policy and society. For this reason, Panama’s National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) is supporting organisational change in local think tanks.
Nonetheless, think tanks are not alone in their endeavor. Think tanks operate in specific contexts and respond to diverse social demands. For example, think tanks in developing countries face challenges like weak political institutions, public policies that often lack a comprehensive outlook, underfunded science and technology systems, and low public support for local knowledge and technology production.
Technological change too shapes the challenges think tanks face, as well as opportunities to respond to them.
In Panama, CIEdu, a research-based education policy think tank, and CIHH, an engineering-based water policy think tank, have revamped their web presence in order to reach new audiences online. Furthermore, FUDIS, a local NGO that links community-based organisations with international best practices, and CIRN, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on sustainable development, are creating digital platforms to link citizens and scientists. New technologies are changing how think tanks interact with their constituents, and how they produce and manage new knowledge.
Technological change is also influencing socioeconomic processes. New technologies, like artificial intelligence, 3D printing and the Internet of Things, are changing how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed. Moreover, rapid technological change is also shaping how students learn, citizens vote, or doctors heal. Indeed, new technologies are triggering deep cultural changes.
Accordingly, research agendas should be flexible enough to respond to short-term demands but strategic enough to anticipate issues and unearth important trends. Think tanks should question if they can strike this balance.
On the other hand, funders should also question how think tanks are evaluated and funded. Knowledge producers and brokers should be evaluated on their contribution to long-term outcomes not only on their short-term outputs. And funding should be provided accordingly.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. However, these are exactly the challenges that technological change is inducing. I believe that think tanks can embrace technological change by highlighting these contradictions in current funding practices and leading the charge in thinking about the future, with a foot in the present.