Think Tanks and Universities: a whole greater than the sum of the parts?

17 June 2015
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

Globally, both universities and think tanks provide policymakers, civil society organizations, the media, and other actors with the evidence they need. TTI commissioned  studies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia to learn more about whether these institutions collaborate or compete, as well as where there might be complementarities. It turns out that researchers from think tanks and universities are producing knowledge and evidence – and getting it into the hands of policy actors– in ways that might not have been possible had they not worked together.

Sound policy making needs a continuous flow of equally sound information. Many different actors contribute to policy processes and they all have their own particular information needs. While policy makers all over the world are often criticised for using evidence selectively when making their decisions, many realise the value of high quality data and analysis. Similarly, civil society organizations and the media increasingly want to access reliable and robust information so that they can participate effectively in national debates on policy issues.

So who actually provides the evidence that these actors need? Universities have long been seen as the key generators of research in many countries. But a shift is occurring. Today the institutional landscape for research and knowledge generation in many countries is becoming ever more varied, and more fractured, as different types of institutions join the field.

The Think Tank Initiative (TTI), supports think tanks, or policy research institutions, in 20 developing countries. We have seen that as the range and type of institutions doing research grows, competition gets tougher. It’s harder to find and retain skilled researchers who have more and more job options. It’s harder to get funding from donors who see an increasing number of good research proposals. And it’s harder to get policy makers to pay attention to a study given the number of other institutions producing policy research.

Reflecting on these challenges has raised quite a few important questions for us. By supporting one type of institution, is there a danger of unintentionally creating challenges for the other? How does selective funding affect the relationships between universities and think tanks – as collaborators, or competitors? Is it important to promote collaboration between these institutions? And when collaboration does happen, how does it help or hinder the flow of knowledge into public policy processes and debates?

To help us find out some of the answers to these questions, TTI supported a series of studies which looked at how the relationships between universities and think tanks play out in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The studies highlighted the strong practical orientation and policy focus of think tanks, and the more theoretical emphasis of many university researchers. They also confirmed that researchers from think tanks and universities often work together because they share an interest in quality research which has the potential to influence policy making for the good of society. Think tank researchers appreciate the status that comes from working with their colleagues in universities. And university researchers appreciate the flexible conditions related to working with their colleagues in think tanks, as this helps them avoid the often heavy bureaucracy of universities that makes it difficult to kick-start time-sensitive research.

Although competition certainly exists between the two, the studies have confirmed that researchers from think tanks and universities are producing knowledge and evidence – and getting it into the hands of policy actors – in ways that might not have been possible had they not worked together.

So how can TTI encourage this positive situation to continue? We learned that several factors are important: 1) a culture of collaboration that encourages researchers to work with others and leads to better uptake of their findings, 2) financial support that is flexible and allows think tanks to be innovative and nimble enough to work with universities on complex societal problems and 3) excellent researchers who possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes that support good partnerships. These are just the high-level findings. In the following series of blogs, the investigators who undertook the studies reflect and share their own thoughts on what they found out – and on how they believe think tanks and universities can build relationships that help them achieve a whole which is greater than the sum of the parts.

Editor’s Note:

This is the first of a five-part series on think tanks and universities, which is based on the global Think Tanks and Universities study commissioned by TTI.

In the second post in this series, Grupo FARO’s Orazio Bellettini and Adriana Arellano will reflect on their findings from the Mas Saber study in Latin America. Latin America is under-represented in the global knowledge ecosystem and, while universities and think tanks are key to increasing Latin America’s knowledge production capacities, the links between them are weak. The authors propose that networks of collaboration be established and mobilized through approaches such as expanded training, financial support, and exchanges.

In the third post, Darlison Kaija of PASGR explores the African context. She notes that bureaucracy, differing attitudes and a lack of resources all pose potential threats to collaboration between think tanks and universities, while misconceptions can jeopardize these relationships. However, these institutions have a great deal in common and it is essential to understand where their comparative advantage lies.

In the fourth post, Arif Naveed (University of Cambridge & SPDI) explores variations in policymaking and knowledge generation across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. He notes that common factors including organisational flexibility, funding, and better research motivate universities and think tanks to collaborate. Practical solutions such as incentives, enhanced capacity, and long-term programmatic funding can serve to strengthen these relationships.

In a fifth post in the series, Shannon Sutton of TTI considers next steps for think tanks and universities. Collaboration between think tanks and universities can lead to stronger outputs, enhanced credibility, and better decision-making; however, hurdles such as unreliable funding and informal collaboration present challenges. She finds that, in order to overcome these barriers, better communication, flexible funding, and support for capacity development are necessary.