July 7, 2015


The Prospect 2015 Think Tank Awards: the winners and some reflections

The Prospect Think Tank Awards were held at the Institute of Directors on Tuesday 30th June, showing, among other things, that there is a great deal of interest and appetite in the private sector for what think tanks have to say.

According to the organisers:

it was an exceptional 12 months, characterised by some of the most profound policy challenges in recent times, including the Greek debt crisis, the rise of Islamic State and the continued economic weakness that is the legacy of the financial crisis. The General Election with its unforeseen result also gave think tanks a wide array of new questions to confront. We look forward to seeing how they will respond in the coming months.

This year the US and EU categories were much larger and included a set of finalists and winners for economic and financial think tanks, social policy, energy and environment, and international affairs.

Coming up with an argument to award the top prize to a think tank is much harder when the policy space is too broad. The beauty of the Prospect model is that it is very politically relevant -and highly contextual. As a consequence, the arguments given by the judges in the case of the UK categories were more robust. The assessment about their contribution was richer.

That said, it is likely that the US and EU categories will develop and, with more applications, the judging and reasoning behind the awards, will improve.

The winners

I have included a section from Bronwen Maddox’s speech to illustrate the reasons given. This is useful for any think tank interesting in learning from others. You can read the entire speech here: Prospect Think Tank Awards 2015.

US think tanks

Economic and financial

Shortlist: Peterson InstituteBipartisan Policy Center, and Reason

WINNER: Bipartisan Policy Center

But this year’s winner was the Bipartisan Policy Center, a smaller think tank whose sharp focus on the question of financial regulation stood out for judges. The organisation “deserves huge credit for the way that it has defined its mission,” commented one judge, adding that “untangling the process of regulatory reform is a very difficult task since these processes are fiendishly complex.” The “veritable army” of well-funded industry lobbyists in Washington makes the Center’s work all the more important, said another, and the importance of its work, combined with the precision of its focus, judges agreed, made them worthy winners in this category.

US Social Policy

Shortlist: Brookings InstitutionRAND Corporation, and New America

WINNER: New America

But the winner this year was New America, a think tank whose work was called “ambitious,” and “wide-reaching,” ranging from analysis of American families to higher education reform. It is “not afraid to challenge cherished American notions of class mobility,” a judge commented, “and has been becoming more and more visible on the international stage.”

US energy and the environment

Shortlist: RAND CorporationBrookings Institution, and World Resources Institute

WINNER: RAND Corporation

But the winner this year was the RAND Corporation, which was commended for its work on the immense problem of China’s chronic air pollution. “The economic scale of the challenge as set out is sobering,” commented one judge and for this reason the RAND was found to be a worthy winner.

International affairs

Shortlist: Migration Policy InstituteBrookings Institution, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

WINNER: Brookings Institution

But the winner this year was the Brookings Institution, a think tank whose work, and its breadth and depth, was called “continually impressive,” by one judge. It was also noted that: “The rigour of its research, the expertise of its many scholars and its role as a setting for keynote presentations by major policymakers put it in the top tier of think tanks around the world.” It is hardly unknown, but all the same has resisted the lack of focus or originality that can afflict the biggest think tanks.

EU think tanks

Economic and financial

Shortlist: Katalys, Bruegel, and Economic Council of the Labour Movement

WINNER: Bruegel

But the winner of the EU economic and financial category this year was Bruegel, a think tank whose work on EU economic affairs has been exemplary. It has carried out rapid and authoritative work on the Eurozone crisis, work that has had a large impact on both policymakers and the media in the EU and beyond. The presentation of a paper in 2014 on the ECB’s quantitative easing programme with Mario Draghi, President of the ECB, was one of a series of remarkable achievements in the past 12 months by this outstanding organisation.

EU social policy

Shortlist: MagmaSNS, and CEPS


But the winner this year was SNS, a Swedish think tank, for its work on welfare and the job market. “Its themes are consistent and also influential,” said one judge, who went on to note its especially strong work on the life chances of children and the overall breadth of the organisation’s influence and expertise.

EU energy and the environment

Shortlist: Fondazione Eni Enrico MatteiBruegel, and CEPS


But the winner this year was the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think tank which has made a “huge mark on the EU landscape of energy and environmental issues,” according to one judge who also commented that it combined “strong policy analysis with deep engagement in the Brussels scene.” Its selection of topics was judged highly relevant, especially the work on smart cities. The establishment of the Carbon Market Forum added to the increasingly international profile of the work on energy and climate change.

EU international affairs

Shortlist: European Council on Foreign RelationsOpen Europe, and Fondation de la Recherche Stratégique

WINNER: European Council on Foreign Relations

But the winner this year was the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank deemed by judges to have taken an “early and bold stand on Russia and Ukraine,” saying that “it understood that Russia’s actions marked the end of the post-Cold War Europe.” Its analysis explored ways to keep dialogue open with Moscow and as a result, it “stood out with its clear analysis and recommendations, and its influence on Europe’s leaders.”

UK think tanks

Economic and financial

Shortlist: Centre for Cities, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and Resolution Foundation


But the winner this year was an organisation judged to have had an outstanding year in the run up to the General Election and to have played a important role for the nation in “helping us to understand debt, deficits, Budgets and Autumn Statements.” The Institute for Fiscal Studies provided a steady stream of analysis and comment that was “to the point about complex and often unfathomable issues, navigating through choppy political waters. It fully deserves the accolade,” and won this award for a second year in a row.

UK social policy

Shortlist: Reform2020 Health, and Resolution Foundation

WINNER: Resolution Foundation

But the winner was the Resolution Foundation, which has stood out this year for its extremely high profile work during the election and for the impact of its research of the effect of policy on those in low paid work. Its ability to combine a sense of moral conviction with technical depth made it the outstanding entrant in this category this year.

UK energy and the environment

Shortlist: Policy ExchangeIPPR, and Adam Smith Institute


But the winner this year was a think tank that enjoys excellent convening power, both domestically and internationally: the Institute for Public Policy Research.. It has conducted excellent work this year on the complexity of energy finance and on the shortcomings of wind power. The judges agreed this year that it was a worthy winner, even if some of its reports did have a somewhat “jargon-infused prose style.”

UK international affairs

Shortlist: ODICentre for European Reform, and RUSI


But the winner this year was a think tank which has had a very strong 12 months, setting out the economic case for Britain’s membership of the EU in a year of turmoil for Europe. Its stall of writers and analysts remains excellent producing often innovative output, such as its analysis of the economic relations between China and the EU. The Centre for European Reform was the worthy winner.

The 2015 award for One to Watch went to:

British Future

The award was this year given to a think tank that, in the judges’ view is growing in stature and influence through its deep engagement with the immigration debate. British Future has a nuanced approach and is gaining attention at both ends of the political spectrum.

UK Think Tank of the Year Award: 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies

And the winner of the UKThink Tank of the Year award, for its forensic economic analysis during the 2015 General Election campaign, is an organisation that for the first time in the history of these awards has won the think tank of the year accolade twice in a row. It has had an outstanding 12 months, and the judges were unanimous that the award should go to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Worthwhile comments on the awards

Transparify offered an interesting commentary for the night:

Only one winner is opaque. Most are rather transparent.

Think Tank Review offered an interesting alternative award based on how well they did during the recent British election.

The IFS wins both times.

The Prospect Awards offers a great opportunity to think about the contribution of think tanks to their societies. The way the award is modelled demands that the judges provide clear reasons and arguments in favour of their choices. Winners are not just good at their work but were better at it in relation to their context. They, for instance, addressed the key issues of the year or opened new channels of influence through innovative communication methods.

It works well, then, that there is an actual audience to praise the winners. The event itself is a party for the think tank community. This year I noticed many more young thinktankers than in the past -at least that was my impression, maybe I am getting old. I saw them networking across think tanks, sharing experiences, praising each other’s work and even finding out about think tanks they had not heard about before.

Unlike global rankings then, this model, provides the added benefit of strengthening the think tank community in Britain. This is also our objective in supporting the Premio PODER al Think Tank del Año in Peru.

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal