Researching think tanks: the challenges and rewards

20 June 2016

[Editor’s Note: Ahmed K. Rashid is a development analyst and researcher. He has worked for the Think Tank Initiative and Governance and Justice Program at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). This article was first posted on the Think Tank Initiative’s blog.]

Although think tanks are becoming increasingly well-known actors in public life, the idea of focusing on think tanks as a topic for research is fairly new. Those who have so far undertaken research on think tanks have used different approaches, drawing on organizational development, analysis of policy cycles, or measurement of policy influence. In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to Bangladesh to undertake research on think tanks. Below, I share my reflections as a young researcher, and focus on defining and describing the work of think tanks.

My research focused on three areas:

  1. How think tanks strive to influence policies;
  2. How think tanks engage with international donor agencies; and
  3. How mainstream media perceive think tanks’ outreach activities.

I had the privilege to talk to think tank executives, researchers, media relations officers, donor agency officials, and journalists. Some of the think tanks I engaged with included the Centre for Policy DialogueBRAC Institute of Governance and Development, Bangladesh Institute of Development StudiesBangladesh Institute of Security and Peace Studies, and Research Initiatives Bangladesh.

What is a think tank? Depends on who you ask

Although the label ‘think tank’ is frequently used by many, I found that people have different understandings when it comes to a definition. Is a think tank an institution? An individual? An NGO? An organization that is typically small with a handful of employees? An advocacy organization? An organization supported by external donor agencies? The ideas abound. In terms of the Bangladeshi context, I found that think tanks are doing a tremendous job of presenting both what they are doing (content) and who they are (identity).

A few common elements of the think tanks I engaged with include the following:

  • They are by and large independent;
  • Retain certain thematic areas of focus;
  • Undertake research dealing with current policy matters; and
  • Rely on external sources of funding.

But I also found that think tanks vary significantly in terms of governance structures, organizational capacity, resources and stakeholder engagement.

Based on my observations, I developed my own working definition of  think tanks:

generally independent institutions, with a relatively small number of staff, that rely on external (private or public) funds, focused on conducting research on specific themes and using various means to engage with stakeholders to influence polices.

A bit of a long definition, but one that sufficiently covers both identity and content aspects. I would argue, however, that variations in the meaning of the term will and should continue to exist, and that it’s better to keep the definition fairly broad, yet context-specific. [See for example the discussion on the definition of think tanks in Peru. The chance to judge applicants to an annual think tank award provides an opportunity to review the boundary of the label -a boundary that is porous and dynamic.[/note]

A focus on institutions or substance?

Another key dilemma a researcher on think tanks will encounter is the dichotomy between an institutional approach and a more substantive (thematic) approach. As I found out for myself when I embarked on my research on think tanks in Bangladesh, I had to choose whether to study think tanks as institutions (i.e. the organizational set-up of these institutions, what they are doing, how they have evolved, how their research is conducted and communicated) or whether to focus on specific issues, such as governance or climate change. In terms of the latter, I would then have needed to look at how think tank research on these topics has been conducted and how it is perceived in the wider community engaged in these thematic areas. These two approaches can be quite distinct, or they may overlap.

For more on a discussion on research methods to study think tanks, read these methodology briefs:

Methodology Brief: Qualitative Survey Analysis

Methodology Brief: Social Network Analysis

Methodology Brief: Case studies, Qualitative Methods and Diachronic Perspectives

I adopted a middle-of-the-road approach, switching between and drawing on both institutional and thematic approaches. Because my research was exploratory in nature, I did look closely at individual think tanks to gain insights into how they function. I also found it quite interesting to analyze how think tanks are collectively forming part of the broader civil society, a pertinent issue in the Bangladeshi context. As I progressed in my research, I started to explore concrete examples of research themes and topics to examine think tanks’ engagement with donors and other stakeholders. As I reflect on my experience now, I do see the value in addressing some of these issues early on, perhaps in the research design phase. However, as is the case with any research project, much depends on the individual researcher’s objectives and preferences and how the researcher wants to approach and answer the research questions.

Seeking out think tank input

In the course of my fieldwork, I noticed that there is a growing appetite among policymakers, media and the general population to hear from think tanks and the research community about certain topics. I have two explanations to back up this view, with regards to the case of Bangladesh.

Firstly, I observed that, as the volume of interaction and the importance of regional and global fora on key development and trade issues increase, government officials are increasingly keen to gather input from think tanks. Policymakers are seeking data and evidence that informs their position and approach to policy issues. This is not to suggest that policymakers are not interested in think tanks’ research on domestic policy issues; rather it highlights the higher stakes in international platforms and perhaps more openness to listen to expert voices. For example, during my stay in Bangladesh, I observed that in at least one instance, a governmental delegation to the World Trade Forum in Geneva was accompanied by think tank executives from the Centre for Policy Dialogue.

Secondly, I discovered the strong representation of think thanks in mainstream as well as other media platforms (social media, for example). Certainly, think tanks have been able to generate media attention with their policy relevant work and crisp, media-friendly communication outputs that attract strong readership. While in Dhaka, I attended the launching event of the youth survey by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Developmentand noticed good media presence and, subsequently, wide coverage in print and electronic media.

As the relevance of think tanks to policymakers and policy processes increases, so does the importance of research on think tanks. So, if you are wondering whether research on think tanks is worthwhile, my answer is a resounding “yes!” At least my brief sojourn supports this view.