Intellectual independence: how to protect and strengthen it?

21 November 2012

Here are some ideas related to a piece of work I did on a recent trip to China. A key concern for many think tanks is how to protect and strengthen their intellectual independence. Other kinds of independence, I think, may not be possible to ring-fence: think tanks are likely to be financially dependent (of governments, foundations, individual philanthropists, and even the conditions of their endowments) and operationally dependent (particularly if they are with universities, government agencies, non-governmental organisations, international agencies, etc.).

The following discussion on the factors, tensions, and recommendations is drawn from several cases recorded since 2010 on this blog.

A number of factors can affect an organisation’s intellectual independence:

  • Funding: The manner in which funds are provided, and not so much the source of the funding, can be of crucial importance. Short-term project-based funding, for example, can limit the space that think tanks have to develop their own research agendas and ideas. So even if the funding comes from multiple sources or from organisations perceived to be independent the short-term nature of the funding curtails the think tanks intellectual independence. A further concern lies in the terms of reference that define the funding: are the funds provided to support an idea or initiative developed by the think tank or are they offered in exchange of a service, to answer a research question posed by the funder, or to pursue a policy objective defined by the funder or a third party?
  • Affiliations: Think tanks can be formally and informally affiliated to other organisations or interests at the organisational or individual levels. Again, the affiliations themselves matter less than the terms of the affiliation. For example, it is perfectly possible for a think tank within a ministry or a political party to offer entirely independent advice to senior civil servants or their political leaders; just as it is possible for a non-affiliated centre to tailor their advice to different audiences in an effort to maintain and manage their relationships with them. This may be explained by the more stable funding relationship that the internal think tanks have in comparison with the non-affiliated think tanks that have to actively seek funding to stay operational. Multiple affiliations (of both the organisation and its researchers) may also support the capacity of the centre to be intellectually independent from any one interest or ideology.
  • Data: The need for independent source of information and advice is often the reason why some think tanks are set up by people involved in policymaking. But think tanks also need independent sources of primary or secondary evidence to work with. As a consequence, many think tanks rely on the research undertaken by academic research departments in universities, commission or undertake their own data collection, or collaborate make use of the data sources of respected organisations.
  • Perception: In the end intellectual independence is in the eye of the beholder. Therefore an important factor is the manner in which the think tank presents itself and is perceived in the policy community in which it operates. It is quite possible for entirely independent organisations to be perceived and labelled by some as, for example, ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘irrelevant’, ‘legitimators’, ‘lobbyists’, etc.


These factors present themselves in a number of tensions that think tanks face in their efforts to inform and influence policymaking:

  • Between being close to decision making and being independent from decision makers: Being close to policy makers, for example, can help to develop strong working relationships with them and maximise the chances of influencing their decisions. However, this can also limit the think tank’s independence to act in a way that may not be seen positively by the decision makers.
  • Between long term research and the need to be quick to respond to current affairs: Long term research (and funding) can give think tanks an edge in the capacity to set the agenda in the future but this may have the unexpected effect of limiting their day to day relevance in ongoing policy debates. Think tanks ought to be able to comment on current issues while keeping an eye on long-term policy challenges. This is also related to the tension between academic and primary research and more analytical and secondary research.
  • Between investing in research and investing in communications (and other supporting tasks): There is no formula to decide how much a think tank should spend on communications but it is clear that this has to be a key priority for the organisation. In some cases, however, investing in communications capacity may limit the resources available for research (staff, data, research tools, etc.). Without the right communication strategy, however, the chances of effectively informing policy may be seriously reduced regardless of the quality of the research undertaken.
  • Between being the leading think tank and having no one to debate with: Think tank need a marketplace of ideas or a space for policy debate in which to present their ideas, discuss them, receive feedback, and in the process, gain legitimacy. Being the leading think tank or even the only think tank dealing with a policy issue may guarantee influence in the short-term but could limit the think tank tank’s capacity to develop original ideas in the future.


As a consequence there are a number of things that think tanks can do to try to maximise the perception of their intellectual independence (I am aware that not all may be possible but at least think tanks should consider ways to meet these or develop strategies that attempt to -if they agree with me, of course):

  • Funding: in relation to funding, think tanks can improve their intellectual independence by:
    • Only accepting long term (multi-year) institutional funding and avoiding project-based funding as much as possible.
    • Maintaining a diversified funding source to avoid being dependent on any one funder.
    • Being transparent about all funds received by the organisation (sources and amounts) and how they money is being spent.
    • Avoiding sub-contracting arrangements and relying instead on untied grants
    • Limiting the number of research done that has been initiated by the funder and instead focusing mostly on research initiated by the think tanks as part of its own research agenda.
    • Developing and publishing the think tank’s multi-year research agenda at the beginning of their planning year to signal funders of their interests.
  • Affiliations: in relation to affiliations, think tanks can improve their intellectual independence by:
    • Being transparent about any formal or informal affiliations.
    • Ensuring that formal organisational affiliations guarantee the intellectual independence of the think tanks –even if it limits their capacity to make all their research public (and why not publish any MoUs or contracts?)
    • Allowing their researchers to maintain multiple personal affiliations with international think tanks, universities, or interest groups.
    • Partnering with other organisations (with different affiliations or no strong affiliations) to reduce the impact of the think tanks’ affiliations on the work and to improve the think tanks’ image.
    • Avoiding being subcontracted by organisations with clear commercial interests and whose own interests may clash with those of the think tank’s mission.
  • Data: in relation to data sources, think tanks can improve their intellectual independence by:
    • Investing in their own databases to guarantee their quality.
    • Making their data sets available to the public through their websites.
    • Working in partnership with other organisations to take advantage their own databases and resources –for instance universities.
  • Perception: in relation to perception, think tanks can improve their intellectual independence by:
    • Developing a sound communication strategy that emphasises the quality of their work and makes any affiliations (organisational or personal) transparent.
    • Encouraging two way communication and public debates on their research and recommendations using traditional and new communication channels and tools.
    • Taking the initiative in the use of new communication technologies to ensure that they have some control over the terms of engagement and use of these new spaces.
    • In cases where a high public profile is difficult, by collaborating with researchers from other organisations to demonstrate that even though the think tanks are limited in what they can say in public they are still intellectually independent and engage with other researchers freely.
    • Related to funding, too, avoiding being the only ones in the sector and instead encouraging other organisations funded by their funders to emerge as idea competitors. This will ensure that they are not perceived as ‘the funder’s think tank’ and instead the focus will be on the competition of ideas that is possible.