Think tank networks as government policy

8 May 2013

Networks and partnerships have been the darling of donors for quite some time. They like to use them and create them whenever they can. Often, calls for proposals demand that think tanks bid as part of networks or in partnership with other organisations. Unfortunately, more often that no, at least in my experience, these words are used rather too freely. Most partnerships are anything but too many networks are donor constructs. After all, not everything that connects is a network.

More ‘enlightened’ donors, on the other hand, are willing to invest in the development of new partnerships for the think tanks they support; although this is not always easy. Here is an example of a very interesting one: not only is CONICYT not a foreign ‘Aid donor’ but it is also a State agency. Who said developing country governments were not interested?

The Chilean National Scientific and Technological Research Commission (CONICYT) has announced an interesting programme that looks to strengthen the relationships between Chilean and international think tanks, academics and professionals dedicated to science and technology. It is holding a competition for the creation of international networks between research centres with Germany, Brazil, China, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Mexico. The purpose is to promote initiatives that facilitate and encourage interaction between Chilean research centres dedicated to scientific and technological issues and similar institutions in foreign countries:

The establishment of international networks in science and technology research permits the enrichment, strengthening and promotion of national scientific, technological and innovative systems, and at the same time, contributes both to the solution of common problems and to the formation of necessary human capital for the creation of knowledge that makes an impact on the economic and social development of countries.

The winning proposals will be awarded with financing, depending on the countries involved. Proposals including centres from North American, South American and European countries will be awarded 16 million Chilean pesos, around USD 34,000, while proposals including centres from countries in Asia and Oceania will be awarded USD 53,000.

The competition also offers internships for Chilean doctorates and young professionals in research centres overseas, as well as trips to Chilean scientific and technological research centres for foreign academics. There will also be bilateral workshops and seminars in Chile with the countries included in the open call.

Promoting networks of think tanks from around the world can be quite beneficial, for several reasons. They can share strategies that work, regarding communications, impact or funding. Access to information can also improve: think tanks from developing countries can gain access to databases and research abroad, and vice versa. Policy ideas and their implications can be discussed more widely with peers who may have had to deal with similar issues in the past.

Networks such as these can have better effects on think tanks that do not have much experience than, say, bringing in “experts” from abroad who instruct them  what to do.

What caught our attention is that this is an initiative promoted by the Chilean government for Chilean think tanks. By the looks of it, too, it does not appear to be a particularly expensive initiative.

Time and time again we hear that international development funders are not keen to fund non-core activities. Few see any value in funding networking efforts, exchanges, partnership building, etc. They all want to benefit from them but are not willing to cover the costs.

Here, then, is a case that think tanks and donors should pay attention to. If the Chileans ‘see’ the value of this kind of investment surely others can see it, too.

This is surely something that initiatives like the TTI, the Think Tank Fund, DFID Zambia’s ZEAP and AusAid’s Knowledge Sector Initiative, to mention a few, could consider. It need not be expensive and it need not be too cumbersome. As in the case of the Chilean programme, the initiative can rest on the think tanks themselves to find the right partners for them.