The expanding population of think tanks in the United States contains a new, more politically committed, group. This comparatively young group is less driven by the goal of basing public policy development on quality research and analysis. Rather it is stimulated by achieving the political goals of its sponsors, even if the underlying analysis must be “adjusted” to do so. I call this group the new right think tanks (NRTT). And it seems reasonable that similar shifts may be occurring in other countries where NRTTs are taking root.
This article examines why NRTTs are emerging and how the wider think tank community can monitor and hold their colleagues to account for poor analysis or politically motivated policy recommendation.
A real-world example: US immigration policy reform 2013
The best way to understand this movement is through a real-world example. A classic example of the policy development process in action and of it being carefully documented occurred 10 years ago.
The first few months of 2013were marked by a fierce debate in the US over immigration reform generally. Specifically, about whether conditional citizenship should be granted to a group of immigrants who had illegally entered the country years earlier.
The debate turned in part to the costs involved in adding these people to government-funded assistance programmes. These ranged from public education to means-tested welfare benefits eligible to people with US citizenship. However, once granted citizenship, they would begin paying taxes. So, the key figure was the net costs of granting them citizenship from that point in time until their deaths. The debate on the size and direction of the difference between the service costs and the new immigrants’ tax payments was energetic.
On 6 May 2013, the Heritage Foundation, which has close ties to the Republican Party who strongly opposed the legislation, published a report that gave a very high estimate of these incremental costs. At $6.3 trillion the Heritage Foundation’s net cost estimate was an order of magnitude higher than any of the many estimates made.
The general reaction among the expert policy community was swift and highly negative. They viewed the estimates as unrealistically high, politically motivated, and the result of poor analysis. An analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank, strongly attacked the statistical work of the Heritage team.
Eventually, more credible estimates were made by the congressional budget office and others. + The Heritage Foundation dismissed the less senior of the two report authors after a couple of months. But it did not comment on the issue publicly and left the misleading estimates on view at its website with no comment.
The so called “methods debate” was reported in the nation’s two best regarded newspapers, on social media, and elsewhere.
The law to implement the path-to-citizenship was not passed. I believe the Heritage Foundation’s reputation was damaged among the liberal analysts and politicians working in this area, although there is no formal evidence to support this. + On the other hand, one can argue that Heritage won this duel. After all, the law was not adopted.
Wealthy patrons have supported US think tanks since the early 20th century, when such organizations made their first appearance, e.g., supporting the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They did not, however, intervene beyond being consulted about the broad direction the organisation would take.
The Heritage Foundation’s funding sources had evolved in favour of wealthy individuals. And these individuals wanted to influence the foundation’s agenda. In some cases, this affected the kind of research carried out and the results yielded. The evolution of rich patrons sponsoring think tanks’ work has been partly fuelled by the redistribution of household incomes in America over the past 25 years. This has allocated a larger share of the GDP to the rich. ‘There are about 20,600 mega rich today—with net worth of over $100 million. Another 77,000 have net worth in the $50-99 million bracket. +
The remainder of this article is in two parts. The first reviews the status of the relationship between think tanks and their funders today, accenting the major changes in the donor community.
The second explores what can be done to sustain think tanks’ traditional objective analyses and outlines actions that can be taken by the think tank community to identify and call out instances of weak or compromised research findings.
Ten years later: think tank-funder relations and the emergence of the new right think tank
My view is that the situation has deteriorated over the past decade. + James McGann published a book of essays in 2021 about past and probable future developments in the US think tank industry. In this book he discussed these developments’ impact on the type and quality of analysis carried out and on the ways findings are communicated. In his opening chapter, after citing global political polarisation, he observes that some US think tanks “are responding to these shifts by taking on explicit partisan viewpoints and only conducting research that will support or strengthen their agenda.” +
He goes on to note the effects of the “recent proliferation of think tanks.” This surge has created more competition for funding. Donors “now have a plethora of options to choose from when deciding where to donate their money” and this puts more pressure on think tanks to distinguish themselves. +
A July 2022 issue of The Economist(weekly magazine) carried an extensive article about developments in Republican party-associated think tanks in the US. +. The article describes the “new right” programme. The areas of greatest importance to this programme are in the Republican tradition: economic nationalism, a restrained foreign policy, limited support for the poor, and restricted immigration.
One immediate task the NRTTs have set for themselves is to strengthen the skills of younger party loyalists. Specifically, this is to prepare them for being appointed as senior government officials for a possible second Trump presidential administration. +
Training this cadre is essential for filling high political-appointee positions at US government agencies. There are about 9,000 such positions at the federal level, beginning with deputy minister/secretary and running through to deputy Assistant minister/secretary and various advisory positions. Having dedicated leadership in all these positions gives the minister/secretary substantial power enabling a conservative programme to be deeply implemented during the four years of the next presidential term. As the article says, “they are intent on shaping a new conservative elite and agenda.” Political appointees under the Trump administration struggled to understand and execute their responsibilities. + Few changes in programmes were made.
The Economist’s article listed six new think tanks founded in Washington and one on the west coast that has added a major new division since the 2020 election loss. They and others share the task of training the new elite. The training is on federal agencies’ internal operations: e.g., hiring, reassigning, and dismissing staff; the annual budget cycle; the nature of inter-governmental agency relations; intra-agency tasks and responsibilities; and working with congressional committees.
At the same time, there has been a vast expansion in the way policy research is communicated. This has meant a broad reallocation of resources away from in-depth research—sometimes with a work period of well over a year on a project.
The resources now go to communicating policy research findings. There’s been a sharp expansion in the number of audiences explicitly targeted and in the corresponding outlets used. The variety of formats and the speed at which information reaches the audience once the findings are rated as “ready-to-go” have also increased. There is an ongoing shift in the work programme in some think tanks in the US as supporters and patrons become more powerful. This may well be the case in other countries, particularly those with authoritarian regimes. In my opinion, the result is a decline in the objectivity (and possibly rigour) of analyses to conform with preferences of political parties or patrons’ views. +
With the continuing redistribution of incomes in favour of the rich, more think tanks will be under pressure to work closely with well-funded organisations and individuals who demand a voice in defining the policy implications of research findings.
The discussion proceeds in two parts. The first looks at tell-tale signs that a think tank may be compromising the reporting of research findings so that they align with political positions. This information is valuable in deciding which organisations’ work to monitor. The second part focuses on those think tanks that are more clearly taking positions that are influenced by politics.
Following this discussion, the article turns to some of the practicalities of setting up a programme to monitor think tanks that seem likely to issue recommendations that are substantially influenced by political considerations.
Compromised think tank findings: identifying the warning signs
The best available information to identify which think tanks are likely to be drifting furthest from traditional think tank practices and standards on developing policy recommendations include:
- the composition of boards of trustees and trustees’ backgrounds, and
- the think tanks’ revenue sources
Trustees’ names and affiliations should be posted on a think tank’s website and they nearly always are. The absence of any of this information is a red flag. The absence of all of it suggests questionable governance practices. For those trustees named, one can find information online about them. The Board’s composition should be diverse and balanced—businesses, academics, the media; conservatives and progressives; and global and domestic experience. Trustees should have roughly similar levels of accomplishments—not one or two very senior, dominant, implicit leaders. Major donors’ presence on the Board can also be a signal that analysts may be under pressure about their analytical approaches and conclusions.
Donor-by-donor sources of think tanks’ funds are powerful data in understanding where power lies within the organisation. The think tank community strongly believes that these sources should be posted on their websites. Where sources are provided, a clear picture of the mix of government contracts, foundations’ contributions, payments from individuals, and corporate contributions are all laid out individually. Apart from small contributions, e.g., under $50,000. The absence of information on sources is another red flag about the organisation’s actual mission and suggests some reason for not being forthright. +
Monitoring suspect think tanks and vetting their policy recommendations
It’s very doubtful that think tank directors at organisations that are bending their findings and recommendations will be able to take decisive action to change. Their boards of trustees are likely to have tacitly at least voted for current practices. And most Boards are self-perpetuating: members who are not retiring elect new members when a serving member’s term is completed.
Therefore, vetting the recommendations and underlying analyses presented by such think tanks will require stronger due diligence. National government agencies are often seen as having substantial resources—either through their in-house staff or through contracting out research and programme evaluations. These resources could be utilised to rigorously assess the external policy advice that the government agencies receive.
However, the agencies in the US would probably argue that their research and evaluation staff are busy executing the programmes defined in the laws passed by Congress. These laws define how each year’s budgeted resources are to applied/spent. But the agencies could certainly include funds for these analyses in their budget requests. Although, it’s hard to judge whether these requests would survive a review or win enough favour in Congress to be voted through.
The rigorous vetting of policy proposals can be a task for the think tank community. They can review the external analyses and recommendations given to government agencies and openly report their findings. This action is called for by Adam Lupel in McGann’s book. +.
While it would be advantageous for interested think tanks to unite soon to monitor NRTTs’ policy initiatives, it probably makes sense for the more interested ones to begin alone, in a learning-by-doing spirit. Once it has done some reviews-and-result disseminations, other thinktanks could be approached with greater confidence. Indeed, they may be anxious to participate. Some think tanks may already have this experience and could start thinking about partners.
Which policy initiatives and recommendations to target:
- Policies under active consideration: When a policy’s being discussed, it’s considered as being under active consideration. This includes agencies’ budget submissions to congress/parliament for the next fiscal year. Targeting these policies would draw broad attention in a timely manner. In fact, the lead time would be very helpful in organising the analysis and response. Additionally, senior researchers would be able to consult well-informed and well-placed individuals, e.g., staff at the finance ministry or congressional staff. Issues that are considered important, i.e., issues that impact large numbers of people or where substantial funds are involved.
- The problems identified is clearly defined and are obvious to the layman.+ The analysis “sets the record straight.”
- Policy areas in which the think tank developing the critique has an active programme. This would add authority to its published statement and would allow the commentary to be produced efficiently. It would also help in identifying the more important cases and the areas of weak analysis.
- Identify policy initiatives of interest by scanning the websites and social media used by the relevant NRTTs. Research centres at the monitoring think tank should monitor NRTT’s activities in this way and by interacting with others in the field for further information on NRTTs’ activities. These scans can be done by mid-level researchers with only a few years’ experience. This frees senior researchers from the task and controls costs.
Communicating the results
The goal is to bring the central findings about weak analyses and/or misguided policy design to the attention of the appropriate audiences. These include those with policy-making authority, influential individuals working closely with them, and groups who will be directly affected by the policy.
Whether or not the research will attempt to reconcile or explain the findings from other analyses on the issue is still an open question. This will need to be resolved on a case-by-case basis. And such reconciliation analysis is often complex and costly.
The communications group will use its existing social and traditional media contacts and establish new ones, where necessary. These relationships help to ensure their likely interest in the analyses provided by the thinktank. E.g., the Washington Post and the New York Times carried substantial articles about the 2013 case of granting citizenship to a group of illegal immigrants.
The process may be all well and good, but one can imagine that neither think tank management nor senior researchers will want to devote significant resources to this task. At least those researchers who document poor work in a published journal article have their commentary published in the journal for which they receive public credit. This would not be the case here.
However, the exposure that authors could receive for such analyses and reports may be substantial in the policy community. They could gain a kind of recognition that’s hard to achieve through scholarly publications alone. The authors could brief both the staff of legislative committees and department/ministry staff very effectively as a result of this work. Such meetings often lead to further regular interactions.
At the beginning, it’s likely that monitoring think tanks will draw on internal funds to support such efforts. But external foundations and donors may take an interest in the work once a couple of strong examples have been established. E.g., once they can see that the work has helped to avoid poor decisions in funding initiatives, which were promoted and justified by shoddy analyses.
Most think tanks develop policy recommendations that are firmly based on evidence. It’s rare that they assess the methods and data underlying other think tanks’ recommendations in detail.
But the limited information developed about NRTTs to date suggests that more should be done in the future. The idea of think tanks collaborating on these reviews and analyses seems likely to take hold as more experience is accumulated. The burden can be shared through this collaboration and the incidence of making reviews can be increased.
These are challenging times for the US think tank community and there may also be unhealthy developments in other countries. Conversations with Chinese colleagues suggest that self-censoring is common in developing policy recommendations. I believe that now is the time for think tanks to diligently and routinely assess the recommendations and underlying research of their colleagues.