Think tanks and universities – Different, yet similar: The South Asian Context

1 July 2015
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in the series on Think Tanks and Universities, edited by Shannon Sutton. This post was written by Arif Naveed, Gates Scholar and doctoral researcher at the Faculty of EducationUniversity of Cambridge, and a Visiting Associate at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad.]

While policymaking and knowledge generation vary across Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, 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.

How do think tanks and universities in South Asia interact? To what extent does external support to policy research affects these relationships? And how might these relationships be improved in order to contribute to the impact of policy research in the region?

Through South Asian regional studies in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), along with researchers from the Universities of Bath and Cambridge, set out to answer these questions and learn more about the relationships between think tanks and universities.

Policymaking and knowledge generation

Overall, we found that both policymaking and knowledge generation vary across the three countries; so too do the organisational practices of think tanks and universities.

In Bangladesh, given the significant financial, organizational, and political constraints, few actors are located in what we call the “knowledge society” – characterised by an ability to produce independent knowledge. The bulk of policy research is provided by “civil society” actors, who conduct monitoring, evaluation and ex-post analyses which feed into policymaking. Universities are underfunded, leading many professors to seek research opportunities with NGOS, the private sector, or think tanks, resulting in an ad-hoc relationship between universities and think tanks. There are exceptions, of course, and one example is BRAC University’s Institute of Governance and Development.

In Pakistan, the historic underdevelopment of the social sciences due to political and ideological reasons is reported to restrain research capacities. Most universities view themselves largely as teaching and training places rather than active knowledge providers; consequently, their relationship with policy processes is virtually non-existent. Think tanks have emerged against this backdrop, mainly as non-government organisations, and hold a significant position in policy landscape. Their key dilemma is that they lack access to public resources and are financially dependent, almost exclusively, on their international development partners, which has implications for the autonomy of their research agendas.  Collaboration between think tanks and universities does take place, but is informal and is mostly down to the actions of individuals, such as academics joining think tanks’ governing boards or working as consultants. There is also an emergence of policy research centres at private universities for policy engagements. Some think tanks are also transforming themselves into degree-awarding institutions; for example, the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics has become a university.

Finally, in India, in contrast to the other two cases, the tradition of knowledge generation in the social sciences at universities is relatively strong. The involvement of universities in policy processes is also significant, particularly for those outside the public sector. There are decades-old think tanks in the country, some of which are well-recognised internationally. In addition, as in Bangladesh and Pakistan, several think tanks have been formed by university academics and exist as flexible organizations that can access resources as well as engage with policy processes.

Motivating factors

Through this study we find that positive engagement between think tanks and universities is possible; however, it depends on certain motivating factors that are common to all three countries. These include:

Organisational flexibility: By and large, universities have complex bureaucracies with rigid procedures reducing the efficiency required by the real-time needs of policymaking. Think tanks, in contrast, are more able to restructure and reposition themselves around emerging policy needs, challenges, and opportunities. Their procedural flexibility attracts university-based academics wanting to engage with policy processes but discouraged by their universities’ organizational inefficiencies. The academic networks which they bring to think tanks are often reflected in their governing boards, providing think tanks with academic credibility and strategic foresight.

Funding: Funding is significant in shaping these interactions. Public sector universities may have no, or limited, financial resources for conducting primary research and policy analysis. Think tanks’ ability to generate external resources often motivates academics to engage in collaborative research. In many instances, collaboration is pursued by think tanks to increase the probability of winning research grants for joint proposals. That being said, both groups of institutions tend to have different, mutually exclusive, sources and modes of funding that discourages institutional collaborations. Project based funding, the major mode of funding for think tanks, does not encourage long-term institutional collaboration. Even the occasional instances of long-term support to select group of think tanks may promote in-house staffing development rather than collaboration. Long term funding, which both ensures autonomy over the research agenda and conditions research to be collaborative seems to be the only way to promote interaction between think tanks and universities in the short run.

Better research and dissemination: Academic research typically aims to promote disciplinary debates and is heavily dictated by theoretical and methodological protocols. In contrast, policy research requires high levels of interdisciplinarity and methodological fluidity. Collaborative research projects have the potential to bring interdisciplinarity and methodological flexibility to universities’ research, as well as theoretical and methodological rigour into think tanks’ research. Collaboration with think tanks gives university-based academics opportunities to disseminate their research at a wider scale through seminars, public lectures, and conferences hosted by think tanks which are also known for making an effective use of mass and social media.  Moreover, jointly produced policy analyses have a higher probability of conversion into peer-reviewed publications.

The way forward

While universities and think tanks in South Asian countries are expected to share the goal of solving public policy problems, their officially stated aims and objectives, career and incentive structures, organizational dynamics, and sources of funding draw rigid boundaries between them. Permeating these boundaries, through collaborative research, can potentially benefit both groups of institutions. It can add policy relevance to academic research and theoretical and methodological rigour to think tanks’ research while improving the overall quantity and quality of evidence and analysis for policy making. It can also enhance the capacity of both think tanks and universities to negotiate their autonomy over research agendas vis-à-vis commissioners of research.

However, this requires creating synergies between the two groups of institutions in South Asia. Academics need to be rewarded for their contribution to policy processes; think tanks need to create incentives for academic publications by their staff. The quality, quantity, and nature of human and financial resources are integral in determining the research outputs of both think tanks and universities, and have implications for their mutual interactions. Overall research capacities in the disciplines of social sciences, weak in the three countries, are essential for generating rigorous policy discourses but require long term strategies. Short courses on social science research methods for both university and think tank researchers can be effective in creating space for collaborative initiatives in the short run.

Lastly, the funding regime must also be revisited. Universities in South Asian countries, and likely other regions too, need greater access to funds for operational costs of research, dissemination and networking. Think tanks need stable, long term programme support, giving them freedom to determine their research agendas and allowing them to develop institutional linkages with universities. Research grants conditional upon collaborative projects can perhaps be the starting point to exemplify the benefits of collaboration. Shannon Sutton’s blog post on ‘next steps’ highlights a few such examples from South Asian institutions NCAER and CSTEP.