Think tank ecosystems: characteristics, functions, and implications

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

[The summary of this session was written by Cristina Ramos, Research and Learning Officer at On Think Tanks.]

Presenters: Silvia Menegazzi, PhD (Adjunct Professor International Relations, LUISS Guido Carli University), Dr. Bert Fraussen and Dr. Valérie Pattyn (Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University)
Moderator: Andrea Baertl (On Think Tanks)

The session explored two different think tank ecosystems, China and Belgium, and how the context shapes and influences the work of think tanks within them. Fraussen and Pattyn focus on the case of Belgium (a consensus oriented country) and examine how think tanks try to stand out in a crowded landscape, and how they distinguish themselves from other actors who also provide policy advice, such as interest groups and think tanks affiliated with political parties. Menegazzi focuses on how the think tank landscape has evolved in China in the last decade and shows how they have been able to secure a special niche with regard to foreign policy and diplomacy, notwithstanding China’s authoritarian political environment.

The recording of this session is not available. 

Key takeaways

This session explored studies of two different think tank ecosystems: Belgium and China to better understand how the context shapes the work of think tanks.

The first discussants, Dr. Bert Fraussen and Dr. Valerie Pattyn presented preliminary findings of a study they carried out in Belgium.

For their study, the authors conducted a mapping of think tanks, a survey with 15 think tank representatives and three interviews with think tank directors with a focus on domestic oriented organisations (excluding the many European-oriented ones operating in Brussels). They found three important features in the ways domestic think tanks approach issues:

  1. Time considerations: the think tanks interviewed have a long-term view, they try to formulate long-term sustainable policy solutions. 
  2. Evidence based nature of policy advice: respondents emphasised that there is no lack of knowledge (there are already plenty of studies addressing societal issues), but what is missing is the right “translation” of this knowledge into more digestible products for policymakers, which is what think tanks can do. 
  3. Consensus-oriented mode of operating: think tanks bring together many stakeholders to have different perspectives and to increase the legitimacy of their work. This consensual style is seen across the ideological spectrum, as very diverse think tanks try to involve stakeholders with different positions and interests in political debates.

A key difference between domestic think tanks and those more EU-oriented is that EU-oriented think tanks have much more competition. Belgian domestic think tanks are small and some are relatively new, but there are tens of large think tanks focusing on EU-politics, so it’s a very different landscape.

The second presenter, Dr. Silvia Menegazzi, discussed a paper on how Chinese think tanks are playing a bigger role in public diplomacy. She argues that this idea of the role of think tanks in authoritarian contexts is often underestimated because the Western literature, for many years, took for granted a ‘fixed’ definition of think tank. 2012 was a critical juncture for Chinese think tanks because the Xi Jinping administration recognised officially the role of think tanks. This strategy established by the Chinese government has led to a boom of think tanks, which have then been used as instrumental actors for increased international exchanges.

Chinese think tanks contribute to the policymaking process, especially on issues on which the government needs expertise and uses think tanks for consultancy services. Nonetheless, we have to understand that think tanks in China are not fully independent from the government and it is more likely that they provide expert knowledge than that they can change specific policies.

From the chatbox


Political knowledge regimes and policy change in Chile and Uruguay 

Chinese Think Tanks and Public Diplomacy in the Xi Jinping Era, Global Society, 2020


I know you excluded the Brussels EU-oriented think tanks from your analysis, but do you think that the Brussels context would be very different? Particularly, I thought the ‘anticipatory’ nature you found was very interesting and I wonder why this would be and if it would be very different from the EU-oriented think tanks.

How important is the ideological position for think tanks in the crowded landscape? Does ideological position help them to stand out among others?

What are the other policy advisory actors in the Belgium landscape?

Do these think tanks also emphasise their independence, as think tanks tend to do in many other countries? Or how do they present themselves to other countries?