Think tank 
lessons for 

13 March 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review. ]

The importance of think tank credibility cannot be overemphasised. Credibility conveys the character of an organisation and defines its persona. It impacts on respect as well, and by extension on a think tank’s ability to influence policy communities including donors.

But credibility is often narrowly interpreted as ‘financial independence’ – the extent to which research agendas and impact pathways are influenced by the source of funding. Think tanks have recently been accused – directly and implicitly – of acting as policy lobbyists on behalf of funders, exposing them to allegations of being ‘foreign agents’ or ‘corporate sector lobbyists’. Admittedly, being an active policy interlocutor in seeking to influence policy can be precarious.

It is important to bear in mind that financial independence is only one dimension of credibility. The Think Tank Initiative (TTI) has developed ways to assess this fragile concept in practice, looking more broadly at how research agendas are set, the quality and profile of senior researchers, and perhaps most crucial, the quality of leadership and governance.

The credibility of a think tank also depends on the quality of research itself. Good-quality research should be able to stand independently of its origin (including the researcher and the affiliated think tank). Though it may not influence public policy debates in the short-term, it adds to the stock of knowledge that subsequently feeds into further research and future policy influence. Ultimately, ‘impact’ may or may not be directly attributable to the original piece of work.

But think tanks who only do research for long-term influence may also face problems and struggle to be seen as credible by their stakeholders. Decision makers are primarily interested in addressing policy issues that are pressing and of immediate relevance. They call upon research centres who can give them quick results and clear answers. This is forcing think tanks to choose between ‘quick and dirty’ analyses to feed into topical policy issues on the one hand, and longer, rigorous analyses on the other. As such, institutional research quality mechanisms play a critical role in ensuring minimum standards of quality for all research products.

Similarly, the ability to set research agendas independently – including a mix of research that is relevant to contemporary policy issues, together with a more forward-looking set of themes – and to invest in pathways for research uptake by stakeholders, are also crucial elements of think tank credibility.

An interesting question here is whether donors – be they public agencies or corporate foundations – are willing, or able, to fund think tanks in a way that strengthens their credibility. Is money actually available to enable independent research agenda-setting or to facilitate dedicated investment in research-to-policy uptake? The sad reality is that, in most of developing countries at least, the answer to this question is no.

Consequently, organisations remain dependent on research project funding to survive. They are unable to set their own research agendas, develop institutional quality assessment mechanisms and deepen their expertise in core areas that support their mission. Long-term sustainability therefore continues to be a challenge, and think tanks remain vulnerable to accusations of partisanship.

By providing non-earmarked, long-term, core funding together with bespoke capacity building support to some 40 organisations in over 20 developing countries since 2008, TTI has made a modest contribution to catalyse change in this area. As TTI approaches the end of a 10-year tenure, the think tanks we have engaged with are reporting a significantly enhanced ability to define their own research programmes. They have also established research quality control mechanisms and continue to dedicate institutional resources to leverage their research in a way that supports policy change.

To help ensure accountability and draw meaningful lessons from this approach to research funding, TTI has developed comprehensive and rigorous monitoring and evaluation tools. What we have drawn from this process, and can share with other donors, is that taking a holistic view of the wider role of think tanks is crucial. A narrow focus on research outputs fails to effectively support the use of evidence in policymaking. Through our work, we can confidently say that core support has enhanced the credibility and sustainability of think tanks. This will benefit policymaking in the short-term, and will also contribute to developing human and knowledge capacities in societies in the long-term.