Think tank state of the sector 2022: OTT Director Enrique Mendizabal reflects

22 October 2022

Most think tanks are concerned about their finances. But they also have a more nuanced set of concerns, making growth predictions difficult. OTT Founder and Director reflects on the findings from this year’s Think tank state of the sector report.

Thinktankers often mention money in conversations with us. And most funders talk about money when we discuss how to support think tanks – especially in the Global South, where funding is less readily available. 

The 2022 OTT think tank survey confirmed this concern: 67% of think tanks in our sample, globally, highlighted fundraising as a key challenge. 

But other challenges were also highlighted, and they fell, broadly, under these four categories:

  1. Political context: 51% of the sampled think tanks were concerned about “political uncertainty”. The quality of public debate (41%), the closing of civic space (25%), increased policy demands (20%) and public distrust (18%).
  2. Organisational resilience: changing and updating research agendas (37%), human resources and management (29%), strategic planning (23%), staff turnover (25%), organisational strengthening (25%) and productivity (10%).
  3. Communications and engagement: expanding reach and visibility (40%), cooperation and partnerships (24%) and losing visibility in the policy space (17%).
  4. Contextual issues: e.g., COVID-19-related challenges (30%) – specifically, travel restrictions (13%).

This diversity is significant, illustrating the multiple factors that affect decision-making in the policy research sector. 

So, throwing more money at think tanks isn’t the solution to all their problems – although money’s important and few would complain about having more!

Politics and money 

The data revealed different relationships between politics, funding concerns and growth prospects. In other words, politics and money can’t explain everything. Here are some examples.

Concerns about politics and money lead to low growth prospects

In the Americas, various political concerns are present across the region – but with diverging effects. 

Latin American and Caribbean think tanks cited being particularly concerned about the political outlook for 2023 – as reflected in a regional research agenda that prioritises governance. 

They’re also pessimistic about their funding prospects. For years, the region has seen traditional international aid agencies leave without being replaced by sufficient local funding.

Unsurprisingly, in Latin America and the Caribbean, the smallest percentage of the think tanks surveyed expect to grow (27%) and the highest percentage (6%) expect to downsize. 

Concerns about politics and money don’t lead to low growth prospects

Think tanks in the US and Canada are also pessimistic about their political and funding prospects but, unlike in Latin America and the Caribbean, 53% still expect to grow. While they share the political concerns of their southern peers, these don’t have the same crippling effects as they do south of the Rio Grande – where journalists and NGO activists close to think tanks can be shot for a policy argument. 

Political concerns, alongside optimism about funding, lead to growth prospects

European think tanks also predict a worsening political context, yet 63% expect growth! Over the last few years, we’ve registered an increase in the European Commission’s interest in and funding for think tanks. 

Concerns stemming from the war in Ukraine and its effects also help to explain the growing importance of think tanks in Brussels and across European capitals. Think tanks can thrive in times of crisis, and the agendas of European think tanks lie firmly in the field of crisis: international affairs and environmental challenges. 

Optimism about politics and funding doesn’t always lead to growth

Surprisingly, African thinktankers were the most optimistic about their political and funding outlook. Yet only 35% expect growth. 

Positive political outlook

African thinktankers highlighted positive changes in political leadership across the region. An increase in public demand and political support for evidence-informed policy-making was cited. The survey fell within a busy electoral year, so it’s possible that optimism increased in the run up to the elections.  

Direct funding for Africa

Donors have said publicly that they want to support local think tanks directly. African think tanks have heard this. 

In 2022, OTT collaborated with a group of international education foundations, which were trying to directly support education research in Africa. We articulated the views and experiences of African researchers to identify some guiding principles to inform their efforts.

Accessing funding – still a challenge

Funding for think tanks in the Global South often goes to a handful of northern intermediaries and apex think tanks, in apex countries.

Thus, accessing funds is still a challenge for most African think tanks, with fundraising cited as their biggest challenge. We’ve seen this directly. In 2022, we started working on a USAID-funded project to strengthen a west-African think tank’s capacity to receive direct funding from USAID.

At the African forum on education research, researchers demanded that funders move beyond their ‘preferred’ grantees. To do this they may have to make radical changes to their grant-making practices – potentially adopting more transparent, open and decentralised structures.  

Other factors likely to be causing moderate growth predictions

Younger and smaller think tanks were more likely to perceive worsening political and funding contexts. 

Africa’s young think tank scene has mostly been funded and promoted by international aid agencies over the last 20 years. Although most think tanks are optimistic about the regional funding outlook, many know that they won’t benefit from it.

Internal factors may also explain the pessimism in Latin America and the Caribbean. This region has the highest proportion of female-led think tanks (Open Think Tank Directory). And female-led think tanks tend to be more cautious in their approach: producing fewer outputs and leading smaller organisations.

Developing the research sector to overcome challenges

The survey revealed that science, technology and innovation is one of Africa’s biggest research priorities, suggesting a desire to invest in the sector. The results of early work in the field may already be visible: African thinktankers reported improvements in the political context, including increased public demand and political support for evidence use. 

This reflection summarises some of the insights from the Think tank state of the sector report, 2022. Other regions and issues (e.g., diversity, equity and inclusion) are further explored in the report. 

We hope this will provide evidence to help funders and think tanks inform their decisions. We also hope to continue making sense of the data with colleagues in different regions to establish an evidence-informed reflection on the sector’s outlook.