Prospect Magazine Think Tank Awards 2011

11 October 2011

Tonight was the Prospect Magazine Think Tank of the Year Awards 2011. Bronwen Maddox, Editor of Prospect presided and Vince Cable, MP, handed out the awards. The full list of winners and runner-ups has been published by Prospect but here are some of my impressions of the event.

First, I must confess that I think these are the kind of awards that every country ought to have. Even if there are 2 or 3 think tanks the awards are not just a great way to showcase their work but also to let others know about them and their potential for good.

Vince Cable had some interesting things to say. Think tanks, he said, should be “thinking the unthinkable” and “putting the unimaginable into practice”. These resonate with the call for “logical leaps of the mind” made at the CIGI Anniversary. Think tanks are great brokers and boundary workers, he added, and also provide an army of people who go on to become invaluable advisors in government and provide ideas for journalists to write about.

Jamie Walls, Vice President of Communications of Shell, who sponsor the event, contributed by saying that the work that think tanks do can shape business. Business is often forgotten as an audience by many think tanks.

The winners

It is important to point out that the judges were driven by two main criteria:

  1. Originality of research
  2. Some evidence of impact in public policy

The judges also acknowledged that think tanks come in all shapes and forms (and sizes) and that therefore there are certain forces that play against the smaller and more focused ones. If they went by their visibility alone they would miss some who are often working in silence but not less important.

Something else that is worth mentioning is that throughout the presentations Bronwen described what were the topical issues that had focused the attention of the judges and guided the debate. So think tanks (and their studies) were not considered in a vacuum -it is not just good research that they were looking for; it also had to be relevant.

The first category, international (non-UK) think tank of the year, is a tricky one. I say this because it is difficult to see how the detailed analysis and discussion that is possible for the UK centres can happen in the event that many more applications are received. Nonetheless the fact that the Peterson Institute for International Economics got it (and now just Brookings) is encouraging. And Peterson got it because of its work on the global crisis. I do hope that more applications from developing countries are submitted in the future -they may not win but will certainly raise the bar and showcase some that may in fact be punching way above their weight.

Punching above its weight is the winner of the one to watch category. This category was disputed between well established think tanks going through a relaunch or renaissance and new ones. Mentioned were the Resolution FoundationIPPR and 20/20 Health. The Institute for Economic Affairs was runner up but the Media Standards Trust came on top.

They were instrumental in much of the debate over the hacking scandal in the UK and calls to reform the Media Standards Commission. They run a number of important and highly innovative projects: Hacked Off (a campaign for a public inquiry into illegal information-gathering by the press and into related matters including the conduct of the police, politicians and mobile phone companies), Journalisted (a brilliant site that helps you find out more about journalist and their sources), The Orwell Prize (the most prestigious journalism award in the UK), and (that helps the public tell good journalism from articles that simply reprint what press releases say).

The Media Standards Trust has a staff of 4. Yes, 4.

The next award was for publication of the year. Chatham House and the Institute for Fiscal Studies received mentions but the winner was Reform for “Every teacher matters“.

The foreign affairs think tank of the year award was a contested category. The judges considered that the winning think tank ought to have addressed either the Arab Spring or the EU crisis, or both. It would have had to produce research as well as convened the right people. This proved harder to find in reality as many British think tanks lacked the people in the ground to address these issues. The joint-winners, in the end were RUSI (for its work on China and Strategic Defence Spending Review) and Chatham House (for its work on Yemen).

The Think Tank of the Year Award went to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. Runners-up were The King’s Fund for their work on the NHS reform, and mentions were given to Policy Exchange, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the Resolution Foundation. In the words of Bronwen Maddox: “for doing Ed Ball’s job a bit better” (Ed Balls, by the way is the Shadow Chancellor -or the opposition’s economics spokesperson).

Its director, Jonathan Portes gave a few words and accepted that although they had been named think tank of the year they had yet to claim victory in terms of influencing policy. But not only this,  but the ideas that they were being credited for were in fact not new. They were 50 years old: Keynes’ and Hick’s. And more than half a century later they are still being repeated to policymakers. Influence, then, takes time, and think tanks can help along to keep ideas alive.

The award is great way to address the question of influence. The Institute for Government or ResPublica (previous winners) were not even mentioned; but nobody doubts their worth and their influence. The awards are a recognition but also an opportunity to learn about peers and one’s own trade. They offer a space in which the positive roles of think tanks can be discussed and rewarded.

Think tank funders in developing countries, take note.