New ideological battlegrounds for think tanks

5 December 2018

Sarah Lucas, from the Hewlett Foundation, told the audience at the Think Tank Initiative’s Exchange in Bangkok that we must talk about and be part of something that is bigger than ourselves.

This is a perfect introduction to a discussion that Orazio Bellettini and I convened at the conference.

Almost by definition, think tanks talk and are part of something bigger than themselves. However, many remain unconvinced that their role should extend beyond the generation of evidence and the supply of technical advice. They argue that think tanks’ main contribution is precisely being neutral to ideological battles.

Some would say that the old left and right divides are a thing of the past (this is likely a simplification of what is actually happening). But does this mean that political ideologies are dead?

We argued, in our introduction to the discussion, that if we understood them as a system of values that allow us all to interpret the world, then they cannot be dead.

However, the centre of the ideological debate today may no longer be the role of the state in private enterprise or who should own the means of production.

Instead, is it gender, identity, human rights, multilateralism, privacy? Think of recent marches and protests making the news in our countries: #metoo supporters v. pro-family movements, #nationalist marches, #anti Brexit, pro-migration v. anti-migration, etc.

Think tanks in the US and in Europe are facing a shift in the debate that does not fit nicely with old left-right divides. Added to this, many think tanks in developing countries are facing a shift in their audiences (policy advice consumers, and especially funding and support) from the global to the local. They are increasingly approaching (and approached by) governments, their local private sector, national foundations and the public for support.

This poses a new challenge. For instance, while nobody at the TTIX would have questioned a commitment to, a recognition of and a respect for the identity of all – free from barriers of discrimination- they may think twice about doing so publicly back home. Some would worry about how this plays out locally with certain audiences. Several times, during the TTIX, we heard of policy challenges which seemed inmune to new research-based evidence (and facts).

These were, invariably, policy challenges characterised by a strong ideological tint. Take, for instance, safe abortion, immigration, gender mainstreaming in education, minority rights, etc.They seem inmune to new data. Arguments need to be infused with values to be convincing.

But, will standing up for particular values open or close doors for think tanks – policy windows, funding opportunities, the possibility to attract talent? What if a progressive approach to gender closes the door to funding from certain conservative foundations (who might have been quite happy to support research on financing health or education systems) or even access to politicians with different values and very explicit public agendas? What if a conservative approach to these issues affects the think tank’s capacity to access certain policy spaces which may open and close with each political cycle?

Gender may not be the issue that the think tank wants to study or the foundation wants to fund. They may be focused on urban transport, environmental policy or manufacturing policy. But if a think tank and its researchers support #metoo like movements or an education policy that incorporates more liberal sex education content then they could run contrary to the values of its funders.

In Peru, a recent meeting of business leaders has presented a narrative that victimises the private sector: there is an anti-business sentiment, has claimed one of its own leaders. In such a context, how likely are think tanks to attract relatively flexible private sector funding?

In an increasingly polarised world, this is an increasing source of concern.

How does this affect think tanks?

First, there is an issue of making a choice: will think tanks make their ideologies visible – or what we might call ‘identifiable ideologies’. This has an implication on a think tank’s independence or intellectual autonomy.

Josef Braml argues that autonomy rather than independence is a more relevant concept for think tanks. After all we may be ideologically affiliated to another group but still be autonomous (and free to disaffiliate).

To incorporate affiliation Joseph Braml suggests these four types of think tanks:

  1. Ideologically non-identifiable academic and contract think tanks;
  2. Ideologically identifiable advocacy and party think tanks;
  3. Ideologically non-identifiable advocacy and party think tanks; and
  4. Ideologically identifiable academic and contract think tanks.

An identifiable ideology can have practical effects on think tanks:

  • Governance: it may limit who joins a board or may encourage members to participate more actively.
  • Research: it may direct research agendas in a particular direction, which could be interpreted as a constraint or an opportunity to focus the organisation’s efforts.
  • Communications: it may strengthen the brand, help reach out more committed audiences – or it may draw lines on the sand.
  • Context: it may position think tanks too close to comfort to parties, interest groups or other political actors.

Second, recognising that many policy challenges are ideological battles in which evidence is likely to play a limited role will drive think tanks to adopt new approaches to policy engagement – which they already do, in some way.

For instance, a conversation I had with a representative from a think tank from Kenya illustrated the lengths that many centres go to to avoid engaging with values head on. She argued that her think tank had a neutral stance on abortion. All they did, she said, was present data on abortion: numbers, number of women undergoing unsafe abortions, deaths from unsafe abortions, etc. They did not advocate for the legalisation of abortion.

But isn’t this, or a similar reform, implied in the choice of research subject? Aren’t they addressing the three moral ideas argued by Ruth Levine: seeking truth, justice and awarding voice? And so, are they not being part of something bigger than themselves?

In fact, to avoid ideological battles, think tanks are dressing up their research and communications as anything but: efficiency questions, meeting SDG targets, means to promote economic growth, etc.

What next?

Robin Niblett from Chatham House recently asked:+

How should think-tanks operate in societies flooded with information especially with disinformation campaigns and ‘alternative facts’? What new technologies and strategies should they adopt to engage with society more broadly?

Should think-tanks be satisfied with remaining sources of independent debate and analysis or is it time for them to adopt a more proactive stance where they are explicit about the principles they believe underpin peace and prosperity?

His answer argues that think tanks must take a stance and promote the principles that they believe should underpin [peace and prosperity] our societies.

We agree.

We think that by being explicit about their value think tanks will gain coherence in their research and communication strategies – and therefore their potential impact. We think that greater openness about their principles will help attract long-term and committed funding – more concerned about the end game than the number of outputs the think tank produces. We believe that this approach will also help attract a motivated workforce, forge lasting alliances and develop a broader support network.

But we also think that think tanks will have to invest in educating themselves, their funders and audiences about this change. They will have to accept that certain policy battles will be lost on account of ideological differences. They will have to incorporate these values -and their position in the polity- when developing their own strategies.

In summary, they will have to talk and be part of something that is bigger than themselves.