The era of the think tank: An analysis of the German think tank landscape in foreign and security policy

24 November 2020
SERIES OTT Conference 2020: the 3rd online event 14 items

[The summary of this session was written by Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director at On Think Tanks.]

The German think tank landscape has become larger and more diverse in recent years. The Robert Bosch Stiftung and Stiftung Mercator, both funders of think tanks, initiated a reflective discussion about the role, work, impact, funding and structure of think tanks that was recently published in form of a comprehensive report. The report highlights those deficits and weaknesses that still exist, and offers action recommendations designed to increase impact.

The session, hosted by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, featured a presentation of the report’s main findings and a discussion on the lessons that can be drawn from it for the international think tank scene.

Speakers: Annalena Rehkämper (Phineo) and Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)
Moderator: Verena Heinzel (Robert Bosch Stiftung)

Key takeaways

Annalena Rehkämper presented a mapping of German foreign policy think tanks which clearly identifies different think tank families – possibly created over a series of waves throughout Germany’s history – with the largest growth since the 1990s. 

The mapping identified at least four types of think tanks based on their main way of working:

  • Academic think tanks
  • Policy institutes
  • Activist/do tanks 
  • Transnational think tanks

Each one presents differences in key categories of think tanks’ work:

  • Proximity to politics- for instance, academic think tanks are removed from politics while policy institutes are very close.
  • Funding – academic think tanks’ funding is largely public while private institutes’ funding is largely private.
  • Outreach – rather low for academic think tanks and more public with policy institutes.
  • Digitalisation – poorly developed with some exceptions for academic think tanks.
  • Internationalisation  – very low, through gatekeepers and northern led partnerships or southern led networks.

The review also found important weaknesses or challenges that should be addressed to strengthen the German foreign policy think tank community. Among them:

  • Lack of practical relevance in their research 
  • Organisational deficits 
  • Weaknesses in their outputs 
  • A tendency for uniformity and insufficient controversy 

Funders were also considered in the analysis, and it was concluded that they:

  • Suffered of ‘projectitis’
  • Did not offer venture capital to promote innovation 
  • Lacked of clarity in their own missions

Enrique Mendizabal, in commenting the report, considered that this analysis chimed well with cases from around the world. All in all, many of these challenges are experienced by think tanks in other contexts – both in the Global North and the Global South and even in what may be perceived as very developed think tank environments. 

He recommended that this kind of analysis should be done, systematically, at the national level. 

You can see the slides presentation here.

From the chatbox


OTT series on the definition of think tanks


@Annalena: how effective was the feedback/recommendations. Was it well received ?

What would you say are the practical implications for think tank communications in Germany from this?

Your report focuses on foreign and security policy. Can you briefly talk about other types of issues? I’ve noticed that German think tanks seem to have a real strength on climate change for example. Do you think the same findings would apply?

Watch the video to find out how the panel answered these questions.