Interview with Alejandro Chafuen, President of the Atlas Network

26 May 2017

Alejandro Chafuen is president of the Atlas Network (Atlas Economic Research Foundation) which works to help create and nurture think tanks across the world. He is on the governing board of several think tanks, and is president and founder of the Hispanic American Center for Economic Research and the International Freedom Educational Foundation, and trustee of the Chase Foundation of Virginia, among others. He writes a column for on think tanks and intellectual entrepreneurship.

Leandro Echt: How did you become interested in the think tanks world?

Alejandro Chafuen: I became  interested in the world of ideas at the start of my career. However, I really became acquainted with the world of think tanks through the Argentinean Centro de Estudios sobre la Libertad (now defunct) a replica of the Foundation for Economic Education (currently based in Atlanta). I then worked in the research department of the post-graduate school ESEADE, in the Ethics and Economics team.

When I moved to the US, I visited other members of the Mont Pelerin Society, an international organisation of intellectuals founded in 1947. Among several remarkable and influential members, I met several think tanks leaders. One of these leaders was Antony Fisher, who started a think tank in England to help move the country towards market oriented policies.+ Fisher also helped build think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute in the US and the Fraser Institute in Canada.

In 1981 Fisher started a foundation called Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which spent most of its history creating, mobilising and nurturing think tanks all around the world. I started as a volunteer in 1985, then became the Director of Latin American Affairs, and then Vice-president. In 1991 I became President, and still hold that position. Between 1991 and 2009, I was also the CEO.

The network has grown significantly. In 1981, Atlas Network had 15 market oriented think tanks and two universities. We now have over 450 think tanks in 100 countries. I am on the Board of many of these think tanks, which gives me  particular insight to their work.

LE: Can you tell us more about Atlas’ work with think tanks?

AC: Through our history, most of our work has been devoted to help start think tanks. Our mission was to help free market think tanks develop. We did this not only by awarding grants, but also through training programs and workshops where they have the opportunity to hear from people who have set up and managed think tanks successfully. We also provided advice, and connected them with donors, researchers, and the media.

Now we have a much larger constituency, so we are making a bigger investment in training programs. For instance, we have the online Atlas Leadership Academy, where people can take online courses that go from management topics to how to conduct research, market ideas, etc. People who take these courses earn credits and outstanding students qualify for more elaborate training programs. Within the Academy, the elite program is the Think tank MBA, which every year gathers around two dozen think tankers from around the world. They learn how to conduct work typically associated with think tank activity: research, education, advocacy and networking.

LE: What are the main changes you see in the US think tank scene since you started in this field?

AC: I will talk from the perspective of Atlas’ work and its idea of think tanks. At the start, our goal was to help think tanks produce independent reliable research without ties to any business or political party. That research was intended to be used at university level, but made accesible to a larger group of people. The goal was to influence opinion leaders.

As think tanks grew and the industry became more professionalised, they started to develop activities beyond research. Their budgets for research was cut so funds could be allocated to advocacy, dissemination and fundraising efforts. For instance, it is more likely donors will support training and educational programmes than policy and research efforts. Moreover, it seems that think tanks today learn more about producing videos than about doing high quality research.

LE: How does this tendency affect the research quality?

AC: Of course this has an impact in research quality and the policy debate. If think tanks do not produce solid research, then they are advocating for issues based on data produced by others. This creates a kind of “bubble” attitude. As an example: in the US there is a big concentration of think tanks around Washington D.C. We have seen many think tanks in the free market network  pay more attention to donors, government and power, than the issues facing their constituencies. We have seen think tanks focusing at State level and  achieving policy victories, but losing sight with what is happening at national level. Only those think tanks with donors all over the country, such as the Heritage Foundation, have a sense of what is going on around the entire territory. Washington-focused think tanks which only pay attention to large donors have lost sight of the concerns of big portions of the population.

LE: What challenges do you think US think tanks will face in the coming years?

AC: The first challenge traditional think tanks will face is the growing number of university based think tanks. When universities saw think tanks as competition, they started to be more open to internal think tanks. One of the most famous cases is Princeton University and the James Madison program, which was created with the support of the Witherspoon Institute. Today we see hundreds of efforts in universities similar to those of independent think tanks.

The second challenge is the rise of intellectual entrepreneurs acting on their own or with a few helpers. Intellectual entrepreneurs are people who are behind the set-up of think tanks (have an idea, attract donors, hire researchers, etc). In the past, to set up a think tank effectively, you needed to apply business practices: put together a team, establish offices, find donors, and be a good manager. With technology, people skilled at disseminating their views through the internet and social media can have huge impact in society, at times competing with think tanks. An example is the Spanish digital newspaper Libertad Digital, which has great writers and gets more traffic (perhaps even more influence) that almost all the think tanks combined.

A third challenge is that the growth of think tanks has demanded a bigger workforce, where staff are often new graduates with no working experience in the for profit sector. This creates a bubble mentality in think tanks, disconnecting them from reality.

Finally, the fourth challenge refers to the focus on large donors, where think tanks lose track of their true clients: the citizens.

LE: How do you see the US think tank market compared to other regions?

AC: The first difference has to do to with the philanthropic culture. US think tanks benefit from a culture in which people are used to collaborate for the common good. Traditionally, there is a strong philanthropic culture. In other parts of the world, this tradition has been weakened.

A second difference is the governance structure and the corporate culture. Think tanks in the US are much more professionalised with more independent boards. In other countries, there is a tendency towards big donors influencing think tank programs. Think tanks with a weak corporate culture are reticent to appoint major business people to the boards, and they end up creating governing boards with their friends, which sometimes are excellent in academic performance, but do not have the necessary management skills.

I am a trustee at the Chase Foundation of Virginia, which supports around 30% of the US free market think tanks. Most of the support for these think tanks comes from individuals who donate around 50% of the average budget, followed by foundations with 40% and corporations with 10%. If you look at Canada or England, more donations come from corporations, usually over a third. There is a misconception that think tanks in the US are puppets of big American corporations.

Third, think tanks abroad have more access to the media because their competition for expertise is very weak. The quality of analysis and data is not very contested by other research producers. Many think tanks in the US publish in less popular outlets or write for their own website because it is difficult to access the big media.

LE: Do think tanks in the US have a greater chance to influence policy than in other countries with a less developed think tank culture?

AC: At the end of 2016, with Trump’s presidential election and the growing disconnect of think tanks to the reality of the country, people thought think tanks would stop being influential. However, if we look at Trump’s Cabinet appointments, almost 80% of them have linkages to the think tank world (excepting economics, where people come mostly from the financial world).

The US has a big think tank culture, so it there is greater opportunity for think tanks to influence policy that there is in countries with a less developed think tank culture. But we need to look at this in a case by case basis. For instance, Fundación Pensar in Argentina and Instituto Libertad y Desarrollo in Chile had strong policy influence and placed a lot of their human resources in the governments of presidents Macri and Piñera, respectively. Generally, we can say that the more developed the think tank culture is in a country, the bigger chance that a think tank will end up playing a significant role in helping advise or placing people in the government.

LE: The Atlas Network works with think tanks that have an identifiable free market position and values. How do you see the role of partisan think tanks?

AC: You have examples of partisan research institutes around the world. I think it is fine for some think tanks to be completely aligned with a political party. However, it is also understandable that the public is doubtful of some of their research, because it might have been conducted with the intention to help a political party. The same happens with for profit think tanks that do great studies. The key question is: what are your goals and incentives? There is room for partisan think tanks, but I think that to contribute to the common good it is better to look at problems with objectivity. It is fine to have your own preferences, but when you work in a non-profit environment, it borders on unethical to be selective with the results you show.