Independent thinking, but at What Price? – Brookings Institution

13 December 2010

Peter Singer hits the nail on the head with an article on the ethics of think tanks and the threats that certain funding sources may create for think tanks’ independence.

On Saturday I blogged about the risks of foreign funding to think tanks in India.

Singer argues that:

Thinktankdom is a field that lacks any universal code of ethics, ombudsmen to hold people accountable, a professional association to regulate, etc. Even more, it is filled with people who are happy to speak about everything under the sun –that is, except their own field and the dirty little part that money plays in it.

And believes that:

thinktankers should not take on private consulting contracts with firms they might research and comment upon in their public work.

John Blundell, former chief of the IEA agrees with this assessment. And, I must say, that so do I.

However, this is not always possible. The reality of many think tanks in developing countries -and certainly in the poorest and most aid dependent countries- is one where the funders of research and influence are a few bilateral and multilateral donors; and more recently global foundations. Even in the developed world, international development think tanks (IDS, ODI, DIE, ECDPM, FRIDE, and other smaller non-for profit and for-profit outfits who portray themselves as source of independent sources of expertise) are almost entirely dependent of bilateral donor funds -even though their research and influence is also focused on these donors.

In the aid sector, funding for think tanks tends to come in the form of consultancy contracts rather than research grants or core funding. This creates, according to Singer’s assessment serious conflicts of interest and challenges the very essence of think tanks’ functions.

Singer’s recommendation, that think tanks and researchers should fully disclose the source of their funds -certainly more so when a particular study has been commissioned by a client- should be taken seriously in these contexts.

Transparency can only been a good thing.