On rankings

23 November 2010

This month, Prospect Magazine announced the winners of the its Think Tank of the Year Award. The Institute for Government won the top spot, with the Policy Exchange claiming the prize for the best think tank publication of the year (“Making Housing Affordable,” by Alex Morton); the European Council on Foreign Relations taking the best Britain-based think tank dealing with non-British affairs award; and ResPublica as the “One to Watch.”

The panel included, a senior adviser to David Cameron, a members of the House of Lords, a think tank veteran and experienced journalists. Their verdict reflects a particular kind of deliberation that clearly attempts to  understand the complexity of the task of picking the ‘think tank’ of the year.

The judges described the Institute for Government as “indispensable,” praising its work on financial consolidation which helped improve the policymaking process leading up to the CSR. Andrew Adonis, the new head of the think tank, accepted the award but was at pains to point out that he deserved little of the credit.

They were also impressed by Alex Morton’s “fresh, thorough and ambitious set of proposals for radically overhauling housing and planning policy in this country.” Published in August, the Policy Exchange report has been widely discussed—and, said the judges, rightly so.

For the European Council on Foreign Relations, special credit was given to its power audits resulting in audits of EU-US and EU-UN relations and its work on international crisis management. And finally, the judges commended Phillip Blond’s achievement in creating ResPublica: a think tank with a distinctive agenda and set of values, which has also published a handful of deeply stimulating reports over the past 12 months.

Also this months many of us have received a few emails from James McGann urging us to respond to a survey to choose the top go to think tanks all over the world. The survey is a massive list of think tanks (down from an even longer one) for the US, the UK, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia; as well as for various policy or topic areas.

A number of dimensions are explored and the respondents are asked to assess the quality of their research, their communication competencies, they degree of influence, etc.

But how can we compare between think tanks in different countries? How can we judge a think tank in the US -endowed and free to speak its collective mind- to be better than one in Ecuador -competing for funds and mindful of what it says and when.

And how relevant is this comparison? Donors are not thinking: should I fund a think tank in the US or a think tank in Kenya. And a think tank in Kenya may look at Brookings for inspiration but cannot copy everything it does -nor should it compare it self with it. An index that compares a US based and a Kenya based think tank is really comparing the countries -and there are better indices for this.

The regional rankings do not make sense either: naturally, Brazilian and Argentinian think tanks dominate the list in Latin America -even when their focus is entirely domestic.

In the future, research funders should follow Prospect’s example and promote the setting up of these kind of nationally focused and led awards. Otherwise we risk promoting a popularity context –and the shallowness that comes with it.