Politics, money, and think tanks: is it really a game changer?

17 December 2012

During the last couple of weeks political commentators in the US have written about the appointment of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to head the Heritage Foundation. J.H. Snider’s article sums up the opinion of most commentators. In Washington’s evolving think tanks, he argues that the appointment marks a revolutionary moment. The appointment:

illustrates an important evolutionary change, going on for more than forty years, in Washington’s think tank community. Although there are many exceptions among Washington’s hundreds of think tanks, think tanks as a rule have been evolving from a type of organization that pursues disinterested public policy research, “a university without teaching,” to one that pursues research-based advocacy, “a lobbying shop with research staff.” Launched in 1973, Heritage has been a leader in this evolution.

Heritage has kept this position by employing people with political clout and aspirations but the appointment of a Senator is, it seems, a game changer. This is the first time that a serving politician quits his job to lead a think tank. At over USD1 million a year this should not surprise many. But it’s also possible that think tanks like Heritage (which are not the norm among think tanks in the US) have become sufficiently powerful and interesting to attract someone like Senator DeMint:

POLITICO reports that DeMint said on CNN that “he’d be stronger and more influential as Heritage Foundation president than as a lawmaker.” As an example of such influence, during 2011 Heritage staff conducted 3,508 radio interviews and 1,339 television interviews on public policy matters, probably far more than staff at any academic institution in America.

This move would not surprise many in the UK. There, think tanks are often led by and staffed by policymakers and politicians:

The Reform think-tank, for example, was set up in 2001 not only to advocate new policies but to promote the career of one of its founders, Nick Herbert. He became an MP in 2005. While Reform, with its positions on public sector reform and on rolling back the state, did not tow the party line before the 2010 elections, it has functioned well as a revolving door into politics. With the coalition government’s austerity measures, Reform and its recipes are back in vogue. Its income almost doubled to £1.1 million in 2010 compared with 2007.

One of the most important think-tanks is the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), set up in 2004 by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. It helped develop an explicit social policy agenda for the Conservatives, thus giving them a more caring public image. Smith used the CSJ to revamp his own political career and to help Cameron become Tory leader. Subsequently, Cameron asked it to take responsibility for conducting the review of the party’s future social policy.

This ever closer relationship between think tanks and politics has moved many to call for greater transparency and oversight. Snider suggests that this is particularly important because:

Regardless of any public policy reforms that might be advisable, think tanks’ abandonment of academic norms should spur a public discussion about the appropriate ethical obligations of think tanks, including disclosure of their funding sources, scholarly attribution standards, lobbying activities, treatment of whistle blowers and revolving door relationships with government bodies.

A game changer then? Only if this public discussion leads anywhere.