Is the idea of think tanks devalued? Tevy Troy thinks so

16 January 2012

I am not so sure. As in most things, the idea is not necessarily the reality. Think tanks are a good idea but they are limited by a great deal of factors. The policy and political contexts in which they are set up the develop can greatly affect what they can and cannot do. Think tanks set up in the hey day of new foundations in the early 1920s in the United States, after the Great War and before the Great Crash cannot be expected to be the same as those set up in Reagan’s 80s or Clinton’s 90s.

In Devaluing the Think Tank, Tevy Troy makes a convincing case for the argument that think tanks need a serious rethink. To a degree, I agree with this. I have come across many organisations that are well aware that they are unable to be independent and innovative because they face funding models that are simply unhelpful; or that have links with certain bodies (public, private, multilateral, international) that significantly limit their independence. Still, they plough along: “such is life.”

Troy concludes that:

It is important not to overstate the independence and the value of the original think-tank model. Because it informs the political system, policy research has always been political. The Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the other first-generation think tanks drew upon a certain set of political presumptions, and were able to sustain a patina of objectivity only because those presumptions were shared by an extended elite consensus in Washington. That consensus is long gone.

The value of that original model, therefore, was not that it was objective; it very often was nothing of the sort. Its value, rather, came from its ability to bring serious, original, expert research to the task of analyzing policy problems and proposing solutions. It sought to expand the range of options under debate and to ground that debate in hard facts and figures.

Modern think tanks, on the other hand, seek to limit the debate by pursuing pre-established ideas. In developing countries, where funding is mostly foreign, this is the case, too. Donors fund their own kind: the World Bank funds economic policy think tanks that tend to promote the policies they pursue; DFID funds think tanks that contribute to its own policy objectives and development outcomes; the Scandinavians usually fund NGO-think tanks; the Canadians Academic think tanks; etc.

Troy’s analysis concerns the politisation of think tanks in the United States. However, I am more concerned over the depolitisation of think tanks in developing countries where, driven by the evidence based (or informed) policy story, think tanks are funded to focus their efforts on policy influence by any means rather than innovation, public education, and debate; all which may or may not lead to palpable change and measurable indicators. Furthermore, dependence on a few foreign funders greatly limits what can be studied and, therefore, discussed.