Think Tanks and universities in Latin America

4 December 2013

[Editor’s note: This post has been written by Adolfo Garcé for the +Saber América Latina project that aims to study the relationship between universities and think tanks in Latin America.]

In 1998, in a text, that justifiably became well-known, Michael Gibbons argued that scientific production in the world was experimenting, towards the end of the 20th Century, a major transformation. According to him, knowledge production had been evolving from a disciplinary, auto-contained, hierarquical model of science, that privileges research on specific problems of interest for academics (what he called Mode 1), to a new model of trans disciplinary, open and horizontal science, that seeks to solve the problems concerning more directly the community (what he referred to as Mode 2).

There is no need of a rich imagination to connect one of the main transformations in knowledge supply verified in our region in the last two decades, which is, the intense development of think tanks, with the decisive change announced early by Gibbons on that text. The production of think tanks exhibits at least two of the features characterizing Mode 2. First, the main characteristic of think tanks’ activity is, precisely, the practical sense that distinguishes the new model of science: these organizations try to generate and disseminate knowledge oriented to solving intricate concrete problems that are faced by those responsible of formulating and implementing public policies. Second, it is usual that inside think tanks, like in Gibbons’ Mode 2, knowledge production dynamics break the barriers of traditional disciplines building bridges between different areas of knowledge.

Altogether with this transformation, the knowledge production sector in Latin America has experimented another transformation equally or even more relevant. The subsystem of universities has also had an important transformation. The number of university institutions has multiplied and its dynamic, in a process that recognizes important differences in each country, has gone to incorporate, in a notoriously higher amount than in the past, the demands and logics of the market. In this context, the activity of researchers has also started to turn, in a mild but sensitive way, to the Mode 2 of knowledge production. Universities have built bridges with the business world as well as with state agencies, mostly to find alternative financial sources. In this process, universities have learnt to combine traditional, scientific, academic knowledge production (Mode 1), with the production of knowledge in the applied context (Mode 2).

Even though there are good reasons to think that changes in universities have been researched more extensively than the proliferation of think tanks, it is not insignificant what we have learned from both processes. Nonetheless, the absence, to date, of studies focused on linking them is noticeable. There is a lack of studies aiming to understand the way in which both processes, which have modified so profoundly the structure and dynamic of the knowledge production sector in our region connect. Here also, Gibbons’ text provides a few valuable clues. The transition from Mode 1 to Mode 2, according to him, implies the multiplication of links between the different organizations producing knowledge. More specifically, according to his argument, these institutions tend to build alliances among them, in which complex collaboration and competition dynamics coexist. Seen through this theoretical prism, the study of the interaction between universities and think tanks in the region acquires a special relevance.

Has this phenomenon occurred in Latin America? Are there alliances between universities and think tanks? How are both type of organizations related? Do they cooperate, compete, or simply ignore each other?  To what extent our social scientists, who have been rigorously trained in their respective disciplines in the Mode 1 of knowledge production, are capable of opening themselves to the dialogue with other actors and knowledge (for instance, that of the citizens, of the public servant, or of civil society organizations)? What willingness or incentives do they have to open a space in their research agendas to contribute to solving the problems faced by those governing our democracies? Assuming that, as Robert Putnam so clearly argued years before in his study on democracy, social capital and development in Italy (Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy), cooperation (that requires the existence of interpersonal trust bonds) is in the basis of progress, which are the factors that would have to be removed to favor the development of alliances between universities and think tanks in our region?

All these questions, seen through the perspective of the new model of science theorised fifteen years ago by Gibbons, acquire a special importance. Consequently, it seems clear that the effort directed to answer some of the questions above is – to use the expression that the mentioned author contributed to install – strictly relevant.