On the formation and support of think tanks

30 November 2010

At an event on intermediaries today I was asked about the incentives that may drive parliamentarians to demand research based evidence -and how would one go about finding out.

I’ll deal with this later, but in the meantime, here is an interesting theory on the origin of think tanks -that is linked to this question. According to Anthony Bertelli and Jeffrey Wenger, in attempting to explain the recent growth in the formation of think tanks in the United States:

committee debate creates incentives for legislators to seek research-based, policy-analytic information supporting competing policy positions. As political entrepreneurs recognize this demand, they supply think tanks, just as scholars have suggested they supply interest groups. An important macro-level implication of this theory is that as legislators’ ideological polarization increases, the demand for policy analysis increases, as does the number of think tanks supplied.

It is worth considering the push factor provided by the political entrepreneurs described by Matt Bai in his book, The Argument,  but this theory of think tank formation is interesting. Bertelli and Wenger offer research funders eager to ensure sustainability and value for money for their investments an attractive entry point. To promote the supply of research, funders could attempt to strengthen the demand.

This demand side approach would involve a number of options: support to political parties, strengthening (and in some cases creating new) parliamentary and evidence based policy making processes,  developing of a highly sophisticated intellectual and investigative media elite capable of challenging public policy debates, etc.

None of these are simple interventions but they, unlike the current supply side alternatives, more likely to promote the development of a sustainable market of ideas -fuelled by a hungrier and more discerning domestic user audience.

There is a fundamental problem in the current approach where funding decisions are still made by donors in western cities with little or no regard for the absorptive capacity of research communities in developing countries (and which terribly distort the research market and the labour market for experts in the poorest countries -but this is for another day). Hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) are channeled directly from western donors or indirectly through western think tanks (and increasingly consultancies) acting as business development agents for souther researchers and research centres.

What incentive then do they have then to respond to policymakers’ needs and demands (if and when they are expressed)? None. A Ugandan participant at the intermediaries event, who works for the Ugandan Parliament’s parliamentary research service (which has a parliamentary research service and so is already part of the way along the road development road I am suggesting), was complaining that even when parliamentary committees publish calls for evidence in national newspapers hardly any researcher comes forward. But Why would they?   Their audiences, quite clearly, are the western researchers and policymakers who fund them.

A domestically managed and resourced fund which competitively allocated research contracts (like ESRC in the United Kingdom or CIES in Peru) would quickly shift the attention of researchers from foreign to domestic audiences. Researchers would quickly realise that they must engage in domestic policy debates or perish.