March 1, 2017


The state of the sector: an overview

[This article was originally written for the On Think Tanks 2016 Annual Report.]

In the On Think Tanks 2016 Annual Report, OTT’s regional editors, Leandro Echt (Latin America), Annapoorna Ravichander (South Asia) and Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a (Sub-Saharan Africa), offer different views on the state of think tanks around the world. This reflects different regional experiences as well as diverse fundraising and communications perspectives. While Leandro focuses on the challenges to the business models of think tanks in Latin America, Annapoorna and Ruthpearl focus on changing communication approaches in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Leandro sees serious difficulties ahead for Latin American think tanks, while Annapoorna and Ruthpearl paint a more optimistic picture.


In his report on developments in Latin America, Leandro draws attention to what might be thought of as a paradox of prosperity – where developing countries that are approaching middle income status find donors switching their attention (and funding) to other, less successful, countries. Latin America is a case in point, with development assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors declining sharply. Think tanks have found it particularly hard to adapt to these changes in donor funding, which has sustained the sector for years and suddenly looks precarious.

Where else might think tanks turn for funding? Philanthropy, either international or domestic, is one option. The problem with international foundations, however, is that they are also shifting their focus away from more prosperous countries, for the same reasons as other donors. This leaves domestic philanthropy. As Leandro notes, this is an active and important source of funding in Argentina and Brazil, but less developed elsewhere in the region. The tax system may play a role here: philanthropic support for think tanks in the US is driven in large part by the system of tax exemptions as well as special regulations governing the not-for-profit sector. These may evolve in ways that create a more favourable environment for think tanks, but change is likely to be slow, while the decline in donor funding is already evident.

As Leandro notes, this leaves governments as the only plausible source of funding for think tanks.  However, it seems unlikely that they will provide core funding to think tanks, not least in a neutral and non-partisan way. Support from governments is likely to involve payment for services rendered. While this is not unheard of – the RAND Corporation relied almost exclusively on contract work from the US Government in its early years – heavy reliance on government funding obviously poses a threat to think tank independence. One way to mitigate this risk is for think tanks to insist that their work for governments be in the public domain.

Still, reliance on government funding raises a number of other potential problems. First, it seems unlikely that a think tank relying on contract work will have much free time or energy to undertake ‘blue sky’ thinking aimed at influencing the government’s policy agenda. For that, other sources of funding will be necessary. Second, the more a think tank relies on project work, the more it resembles a consulting firm. Consulting firms are great, but they rarely replenish their human capital (i.e. the skills and ideas of their researchers and analysts). If think tanks can draw on a strong local university sector for skilled researchers, it may be able to avoid this trap.

In contrast to the difficult funding landscape facing Latin American think tanks, the reports from South Asia and Sub-Saharan African are more upbeat and optimistic. Both Annapoorna and Ruthpearl report increasing use of social media in think tank communications. In India, this is apparently partly driven by a growing government interest in social media; in Sub-Saharan Africa, the use of social media  “has potential to spur learning, mentoring and accountability amongst researchers while providing opportunities for discussion, debate and mutual learning with non-academia.”  These are clearly very welcome developments, since effective communication is one of the most important elements of think tank success.

The growing importance of social media, welcome though it may be in Asia and Africa, has raised much bigger and more troubling issues elsewhere – in particular in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The appeal of social media is understandable: quick and easy to use, with results that appear almost immediately. This has prompted some academics to use social media as a way of communicating with a wider public. Instead of waiting years for a journal article to be published, and then more years for citations to accumulate, social media activity offers the enticing prospect of accelerating both the impact of research and the measurement of its impact. Think tanks with a strong communication focus have embraced social media as well.

While there are clear advantages of using social media, there is a cost, or at least a very great risk attached to its widespread use in politics and public policy. The underlying justification for using and relying on social media is that they allow “the public” to “vote with their tweets”. But it is now apparent that most of the public does not participate in this voting process, and many that do are quickly driven away by online trolling – abuse, intimidation or worse. More ominous still is the astonishing growth of ‘fake’ news sites, which aim to foster cynicism and distrust of all news and the media that provide it. Given how much think tank communication strategies rely on media coverage, the advent of fake news is a serious issue, which needs to be monitored.

In some ways this is nothing new: retail sites such as Amazon and TripAdvisor have been vulnerable to “fake reviews”, and have had to take measures to police this activity. But fake news and collusion among the providers of such news is a new development, and seemingly much harder to police.

Fake news, by fostering cynicism and distrust of all news and the media that provide it are a serious issue for think tanks: their communications policies rely on media coverage, and this cynicism and distrust threatens the foundations of these policies.

There is worse: ‘fake think tanks’, well described in a recent issue of Wired by Emma Ellis (2017). But fake research is not new. The tobacco and the oil industries have long histories of sponsoring researchers to create confusion about the link between smoking and cancer and about human activity and climate change. There was no golden age of think tanks of course, where organisations free of any pressure from their funders debated policy issues in a sober, restrained and dispassionate way. However, the growth of fake think tanks seems to have accelerated, and the frauds have become better at coordinating their efforts. This is potentially very bad news for honest think tanks: : Gresham’s law in economics predicts that bad (debased) coinage drives out good coinage, and fake think tanks may in the same way drive out honest ones. Their work will be much more difficult as they must first convince the media and the public that they are honest, and only then will their ideas have a chance of receiving a hearing.

It is not easy to see what can be done to discourage the growth of fakes. Regulating the industry is unlikely to work. What body is impartial enough to regulate such essentially political actors as think tanks? The difficulties the UK has experienced in setting up a statutory press regulator following recent scandals involving the invasion of privacy suggest that regulating think tanks would be no easy matter, and the cure might be much worse than the disease.

Transparency about funding sources will help. Every think tank should be as open and honest about this as possible. A ‘reputation’ system, in which think tanks earn a reputation from their peers might be a useful supplement to transparency, but would involve a serious burden on those who participate. It will be worth exploring what organisations like Google and Facebook, with their huge resources and access to big data, can do about the growing issue of ‘fake news’. Think tanks also have a role to play in educating the public about data and evidence, even though a significant proportion of the public are indifferent or even hostile to such initiatives.

This is not a problem that can be tackled by an individual think tank – collective action is needed. More work for OTT in 2017.

About the author:

Stephen Yeo:  Adviser at Large at On Think Tanks and independent consultant

Read more from: Stephen Yeo