The future of think tanks in a post-Covid-19 world: Looking to (social) science for the answers

18 May 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

[This article was originally published by the International Development Research Network on 12 May 2020].

Social science and the humanities have long held important places in modern society for the insights, stimulation and escapism that they can provide in the best times and, indeed, in the worst. Whilst medical science continues to dominate the news as national governments seek solutions to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember the vital role that social scientific inquiry can, and has historically, played in the global efforts to fight pandemics. During the Ebola outbreak 2014-16, social scientists based in West Africa played important roles in understanding and diagnosing social, traditional and political factors that were involved in the spread of the disease and the inefficiency of governmental efforts to slow it. For example, the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform team in Sierra Leone discovered that traditional care and burial social practices were aiding the spread of Ebola. In many of the countries, historical violence associated with the government had resulted in mistrust of official advice and a subsequent disobedience to national measures designed to prevent the spread. These insights allowed medical professionals to target their solutions towards local leadership networks that were ultimately more effective in slowing the disease.

Similar interdisciplinary research is being carried out to combat Covid-19 today. Due to the coronavirus’ global impact, it is more important than ever that response efforts need be attuned to and mindful of varying and diverse cultural and societal contexts and vulnerabilities – one solution will not fit all. It is promising, therefore, to see social scientists delve into their own fields of expertise to assist the largest number of people, such as psychologists assessing the impacts of isolation and quarantine measures on mental health and loneliness, or political economists examining the knock-on effects of supply chain shocks. Globally, it is possible to see social scientists rising to meet the challenges posed by Covid-19, such as the recent report produced by Germany’s independent National Academy of Sciences that played a crucial role in easing restrictions whilst maintaining suitable consideration of the impacts on the most vulnerable communities.

In the United Kingdom, the social sciences and humanities focussed British Academy has outlined its plans to carry out research on short, medium and long term impacts resulting from Covid-19, including ways in which to address regional inequalities and rebuild a purposeful economy in the wake of the impending economic slowdown. As Professor Sir David Cannadine, President of the British Academy said,

Though the immediate challenges are medical, the insights from these [social scientific] disciplines will become increasingly crucial as we navigate out of lockdown and towards a new way of living.

This is an incredibly important statement as it highlights the reality that societal living has and will continue to alter from the previous status quo, and as such we will need new analysis to help navigate it. Indeed, to quote the VP for Public Engagement at the British Academy, Reverend Professor MacCulloch, “the humanities and social sciences are essential components of a thriving and prosperous nation” which will not only aid us in the fight against Covid-19 but will also help in our creation, understanding and analysis of new patterns of societal behaviour, both intra- and internationally.

As such, it is worrying to see reports surfacing that suggest think tanks and the research and development industry as a whole could be facing financial difficulties, reduced funding and national spending cuts. Recent research carried out by the Charities Aid Foundation of America highlights that over two-thirds of the 500 surveyed research organisations have reported decreased funding or difficulties reaching donors since the pandemic began, and over 95% have been negatively impacted. Furthermore, an On Think Tanks study found that 62% of respondents reported that their sectors have not been considered in the governmental support policies. Many countries have provided national support for businesses, but few have included NGO’s and educational charities in their plans, placing research institutes in uncomfortable waters. This is further exacerbated by the funding inequalities prevalent throughout the research sector. In uncertain times, some funders will either entirely reduce their funding, or focus it along familiar channels which can result in larger and more influential think tanks receiving a greater proportion of the total available funding and push out the less resilient think tanks. Enrique Mendizabal, founder of On Think Tanks, also highlights the way that

Smaller and less well-resourced think tanks have found it harder to move on-line, re-focus their agendas, mobilise the support of their boards, respond to Covid-19 related research calls, or undertake necessary adjustments to their strategic plans.

In the immediate term, think tanks will need to do their best to refocus their efforts on providing research on the coronavirus in order to be as eligible as possible for the available funding. For think tanks in developing countries, the future remains unclear due to the high reliance on state and international funding, both of which are currently under immense stress. There needs to be a fundamental re-evaluation of the way that research funding works, although it may indeed fall to the few research bodies that benefit from this funding refocus to speak out about this oversight. It is important that all research bodies in the social sciences acknowledge their own vital role in the continuing global struggle, whilst also maintaining an awareness of the overall health of the social science community. If different think tanks do not support others, or if research bodies do not uplift other institutions that are struggling, we may see a shrinking of the research community as a whole. It is imperative that this does not happen, for a weak social science community can only sustain weak research institutions and think tanks, and currently the world needs the insights, stimulation and escapism so often provided by this (social) science.