New blood means new challenges for U.S. think tanks

12 June 2012

Allen McDuffee of the Washington Post´s blog Think Tanked has recently written a piece on how the presidents of several large American think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corp. are stepping down, some after a considerable amount of years in the position. This renewal of leadership, however, is taking place in the face of several new challenges that the new generation will have to deal with.

A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.

Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that communications will be the biggest challenge for newcomers, due to “too much noise in public policy today”. This will require new presidents to become more creative about reaching out to their audiences. Brooks became AEI´s president in 2009, after Christopher Demuth stepped down after 20 years. He characterises these challenges as exhilarating and fun. However, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that this approach, combined with less financial resources and more competition due to the appearance of more organisations in the think tank field, is contributing to the large amount of retirements.

McGann also is of the opinion that these think tanks have political considerations in mind when choosing their new leaders. Some have decided to maintain the status quo by choosing new presidents from among their own ranks, as was the case with Rand Corp. and the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Others have behaved differently, like the Centre for American Progress who chose Neera Tanden as its new director, signalling a change by forming part of the new wave of women leaders in positions traditionally filled by men.

In any case, these new leaders have their work cut out for them. Increased competition, donor expectations, the 24 – hour news cycle and the expectation to respond to politics will put a strain on think tanks, particularly when new directors do not have the same relationship with donors as their predecessors did. This means that they will not have the leverage to resist donor requests, and so research will come in danger of being dictated by politics. All of these issues will certainly keep new think tank directors up at night.