Looking back at the 2018 OTT Conference

5 April 2018

The 2018 OTT Conference was an opportunity to bring together thinktankers, think tank scholars, policy entrepreneurs and think tank funders from around the world to share experiences, present their research, co-develop solutions to common challenges and establish new or strengthen old partnerships.

The OTT Conference was organised by OTT in collaboration with the University of Bath, Universidad del Pacífico and  Soapbox with support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath and SENACYT (the Panamanian science and technology council).

The OTT Conference was initially conceived as an opportunity to invite OTT’s collaborators and partners to join the OTT Team after our annual meeting. After the first conference in February 2017, we decided to  broaden the number and range of participants to include individuals from other organisations who would contribute to a rich and fruitful discussion.

The OTT Conference is designed to provide participants with as much freedom as possible to determine the issues they wish to address, lead the organisation of panels or workshops, and shape the meeting’s outcomes.

For the 2018 conference we scheduled a few key-note speakers and sessions to kick-start the process. In the run up to the event we asked participants to help us produce the sessions they wanted to lead and/or be part of. These included presentations, panels, group-work and workshops.

Our programme included long coffee and lunch breaks, intended to provide time for attendants to meet in smaller groups to establish new or strengthen existing partnerships. The University of Bath’s venue in London provided the perfect space for this.

Finally, OTT recorded the conference and will report it to a wider audience throughout the year, maximising the benefits for those who were not able to attend.+

You can review the OTT Conference via @onthinktanks fb.com/onthinktanks and #thinktanksmatter #ottconference

Who joined us?

Attendants included think tank leaders and thinktankers, policy entrepreneurs working in the field of evidence informed policymaking, policy research funders and think tank scholars. The conference is designed for those who are interested in critically unpacking the think tank label, addressing the opportunities and challenges these organisations face, and exploring the changes within and around them.

The conference was a perfect space to:

  • Present new research on think tanks or evidence informed policy and seek feedback from fellow participants;
  • Seek out help or support from peers to address a challenge or take advantage of an emerging opportunity;
  • Explore new collaboration opportunities and launch new partnerships;
  • Learn about think tanks, how to fund and support them, how best to work with them, etc.

The conference was more gender  balanced than what is reflected in the picture above, with an average of 55% of men and 45% of women. One of the sessions was dedicated to women in think tanks.

To find out more about each of the participants and to get in touch with them, visit: the OTT 2018 Conference participants. We were joined by others last minute, and there were a few absentees, but this list is a good indication of all those who participated.


The following outline was developed in close consultation with the participants:

Monday 12 – Tuesday 13th February: OTT Team meeting (closed meeting)

The OTT Team met to report on the previous year, present new projects and review 2018-2019 plans.

This meeting was also an opportunity for OTT Team members and Advisory Board members (those who could join us) to meet and explore possible collaborations.

The OTT Team and Board are based all over the world and do not often have the chance to spend time with each other. Therefore, this opportunity to meet is always invaluable for the sustainability of the initiative.

This meeting included a presentation by Xufeng Zhu (Tsingua University and On Think Tanks Board member) on a new Big Data Report on Think Tanks in China.

Tuesday 13th February, 7:30pm: Public event: Are research centres and think tanks facing a credibility crisis? The view from around the world (at the NUJ – The Chapel, 308 Grays Inn Road, London, WC1X 8DP)

To mark the end of the OTT team meeting and the start of the OTT Conference we organised a public event in London in partnership with University of Bath.

The panel involved:

  • Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP)  –Sonja replaced Kathryn Oliver (LSHTM)
  • Ruth Levine (Hewlett Foundation)
  • Norma Correa (PUCP)
  • Nick Pearce (University of Bath)

Moderated by Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)

The panel was asked: “Are research centres and think tanks facing a credibility crisis? If so, what can they do to address this? If they are not, why are we talking about it so much?”

14-15th February: OTT Conference (83 Pall Mall, London)

There were 4 types of spaces to share ideas:

  • Plenary presentations and debates were 45 minutes long and intended to give us “something to think about”
  • Introductory presentations to the parallel sessions were 30 minutes long and intended to set the scene
  • Parallel sessions were 1h 30 minutes long
  • Extended coffee-breaks (30mins) and lunch-breaks (1h 30mins) to allow participants to engage with each other directly

Day 1: 14th February

  • (900-930) Opening remarks and introductions
  • (930-1015) Key-note presentation and debate:
    • Ruth Levine (Hewlett Foundation) on the “Moral case for evidence informed policy”+

  • (1015-1045) Coffee-break
  • (1045-1115) Introductory presentation to the parallel sessions: Hans Gutbrod on authoritarian resurgence and how it might affect discussions on think tanks in populist contexts and credibility.+

  • (1115-1245) Parallel sessions A:
    • Parallel session A1: “What challenges do think tanks in populist and highly polarised contexts face and what roles can they play?” with presentations by Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP), Iulian Groza (IPRE), Simonida Kacarska (EPI) and Christopher Rastrick (University of Western Ontario)+ with commentaries from Salvador Sanchez, Vice-Minister at the Ministry of the Presidency of Panamá

    • Parallel session A2: “Enhancing the sustainability and effectiveness of think tanks in developing countries” with Barassou Diawara and Thomas Muthali (ACBF), Giancarlo Roach (Senacyt), and Julie LaFrance (Think Tank Initiative)

  • (1245-1315) Report back
  • (1315-1445) Lunch
  • (1445-1530) Key-note presentation and debate

  • (1530-1700) Parallel sessions B:
    • Parallel session B1: “Research credibility: how to gain it, how to maintain it, and how (not) to lose it” with Andrea Baertl (On Think Tanks), Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Bath) and Till Bruckner (TranspariMED)

    • Parallel session B2: “Design thinking for think tanks” led by Melanie Rayment+

    • Parallel session B3: “Women, knowledge and think tanks” with Josephine Tsui (ODI) and Norma Correa (PUCP)+
  • (1700-1730) Report back
  • (1730-1830) Tea and follow-up opportunity

Day 2:

  • (1115-1245) Parallel  sessions C:
    • Parallel session C1: “How to measure the impact of think tanks?” kickstarted by Donald Abelson (The University of Western Ontario) with a commentary by Enrique Planells-Artigot (ESIC Business & Marketing School) and Helen Tilley(ODI)

    • Show and engage session 2: “A new digital dashboard to monitor policy engagement: Lessons from IFAD”

    • Parallel session D2: “Mobilising domestic funding for think tanks” with David Tripepi-Lewis (Institute for Government), Ana Patricia Muñoz (Grupo FARO) and Cristina Bacalso (Youth Policy Labs)

  • (1700-1730) Tea-break
  • (1730-1800) Report back
  • (1800-1830) Presentation of the OTT Annual Review, closing remarks and discussion

Friday, 16th February: Academic meeting (83 Pall Mall, London)

As part of the OTT Conference week, the University of Bath’s research network on think tanks and OTT , organised a post-conference meeting for think tank scholars.

  • (10:30-11:00) Introduction to the OTT/Bath think tank and policy research network by Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Bath)
  • (11:00-11:20) New models of subjective well-being in cultural advocacy: a politics of research between the market and the academy by Susan Oman (University of Manchester)
  • (11:20-11:40) Gender and policy research careers by Norma Correa (PUCP)
  • (11:40-12:20) Think tanks and Trump, a conversation between Donald Abelson and Christopher Rastrick (University of Western Ontario)
  • (12:40-13:20) Lunch
  • (13:20-13:40) Understanding credibility by Andrea Baertl (On Think Tanks)
  • (13:40-14:00) British think tanks and the economic crisis, by Marcos Gonzalez Hernando (City University/University of Cambridge)
  • (14:00-14:15) Break
  • (14:15-14:35) What can think tanks learn from alt-metrics, by Kate Williams (University of Cambridge)
  • (14:35-15:00) Researching think tanks with digital methods and data sprints: warnings, opportunities and initial findings by Rebekah Larson (University of Cambridge), Susan Oman (University of Manchester) an Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Bath)

Accounts from the participants

We asked those who attended to share some of their views on the conference. We registered some of their opinions about what went well -and not so well.

This worked well:

I liked the most an exchange on the issue of think tanks working in different contexts. I especially liked the keynote speeches of Hans Gutbord and Ruth Levine and the session on new types of think tanks  from foraus and Centre for London. I appreciated the chance to co-design the agenda through the online survey, along with the reading material and presentations from the conference. The long breaks were a great opportunity for networking!

The format of the conference worked well. Participants were able to actively contribute to the discussion, and it was a balanced combination of presentations and working group discussions. The conference also offered a good networking opportunity for potential new partnerships. The organisation was perfect.

Without a doubt it’s one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. It was a pleasure and very rewarding at a personal and professional level.

Really great presentations, networking was nice, but seeing everyone going through similar things in such diverse contexts was also interesting and reassuring.

Things that did not go as well and we hope to improve:

Try to include some more think tanks to share their experience.

Include a session where people can launch joint initiatives.

Maybe introduce a slot for hands-on joint work/brainstorming on an issue nominated by participants. It would be great to pair up in teams and work together on resolving some of issues think tanks face, like designing an initiative for re-connecting or involving primary constituency.

More time for socializing. Besides that, everything was great.

Reading list

To help participants get in the mood we offered a reading and viewing list – developed, in part, by the participants’ own recommendations.

(Some basics)

Watch and listen