On the origin of think tanks -newspapers

28 July 2010
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Back in 1790, a group of Peruvian intellectuals founded the ‘Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País‘; an academic society that followed in the footsteps of Spanish Royal Economic Societies like ‘La Bascongada‘ (1765). In Peru, the Sociedad initially involved informal meetings and discussions on the idea of a new independent nation (Peru’s independence did not come until 1821 -or 1824 if you, like me, think that simply declaring independence is not enough). As the Society grew and the meetings became more frequent, its members resorted to presenting written dissertations; and between 1791 and 1794 they published a Newspaper called El Mercurio Peruano.

The paper’s main objective was to develop a better understanding of the Peruvian identity; as a prerequisite to future attempts to constitute an independent nation.

And so, the Sociedad provided a space for debate, facilitated the development of Peru’s future political leaders, and helped to develop new political ideas. These are no different than the functions that modern think tanks play today.

In fact, today, when we see publications and think tanks in apparent competition with each other we should remember that they share a common past. The origin of think tanks in Colombia, in the mid 1800s is also found in newspapers; in this case, publications linked to the leading political parties. They provided spaces for intellectuals to come to together to formulate their ideas and proposals for the development of the new Republic (much like Peruvian intellectuals had done in their struggle for independence).

Reading the About page of The Economist’s website I cannot but think that I am reading about a think tank’s origins: analysis and opinion, a collective voice, it backs presidents and prime ministers, etc. but most importantly:

Established in 1843 to campaign on one of the great political issues of the day,The Economist remains, in the second half of its second century, true to the principles of its founder. James Wilson, a hat maker from the small Scottish town of Hawick, believed in free trade, internationalism and minimum interference by government, especially in the affairs of the market. Though the protectionist Corn Laws which inspired Wilson to start The Economist were repealed in 1846, the newspaper has lived on, never abandoning its commitment to the classical 19th-century Liberal ideas of its founder.

And so the small and policy focused newspaper grew to address and increasingly complex world and tackle more issues with its own analysis, opinion and debate. The newspaper became a group of organisations (including the Economist Intelligence Unit -the modern think tank of the group) but its functions remain the same.

Today, investigative journalism in the BBC or the Guardian provide similar roles as the studies of think tanks -drawing from academic research and policy analysis they cannot help make policy recommendations. Many tabloids run several national and local campaigns to change policy (see the latest Evening Standard’s Dispossessed campaign).

The latest Guardian initiative, to be launched soon, focuses on the development of an international development portal similar to the climate change portal or the Katine project. But most striking is the way that the paper has pre-empted think tanks across the board by launching its Data Blog -even if its researchers are not yet making specific policy recommendations.

Given this historical link it is not surprising therefore to find that think tanks are keen to be associated with influential publications -or publish their own as a means of influence and securing untied income. Apoyo in Peru publishes Perú Económico, Semana Económica and  Debate. Also in Peru, CIUP publishes Punto de Equilibrio. Chatham House publishes The World Today and a journal, International Affairs. FRIDE, in Spain, publishes the Spanish edition of Foreign Policy. And if they do not have their own periodicals then think tanks make sure that their experts are frequent contributors to politics and policy magazines and newspapers. Or, like CEPR is doing, quite successfully, they can publish online via specialised and edited portals like VoxEU.

Co-existence then is possible and beneficial to both parties. Should more think tanks give this a go?