Think Tanks and Universities: not just a communications’ partnership

15 April 2015
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

Some time ago I wrote an article for the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences Blog in which I argued that universities could collaborate with think tanks to enhance their capacity to communicate their theories and ideas. Universities, I argued, are not always best places to turn complex ideas into popular ones. Think tanks, on the other hand, are supposed to do this.

I was thinking of the British context when I wrote this. Or, at least, of a situation in which well-funded universities co-exist with well-funded think tanks and where both have the capacity to undertake research. In fact, the context I had in mind is one in which universities have a greater capacity to undertake research than think tanks.

But in a different context, there are other reasons why universities and think tanks would want to work together. And one of these reasons provides an opportunity to explore a possible funding model for think tanks.

The context that I have in mind has some of the following characteristics:

  • Universities are poorly funded and are therefore unable to produce research or, what is increasingly common in developing countries, they have sufficient funds but simply do not have the capacity to produce research (maybe they never had that mandate in the first place, or they have lost their researchers to other actors such as central banks, donors, NGOs, consultancies and, yes, even think tanks). Look at what happens in Peru:

Public Universities  only spent 14% of the S/824.6 million (USD274 million) they had for research in 2013.

In summary, in a growing number of developing countries:

  • Universities have funding (or access to funding) and need research capacity; and
  • Think tanks need funding (or access to funding) and have research capacity.

Over a long conversation, Orazio Bellettini, director of Grupo FARO in Ecuador, suggested that this opens the possibility for a win-win situation. We just need to find the mechanisms to make it happen. Luckily, there is a well known case from the UK that could serve as inspiration: IDS. Hans Gutbrod offers a very similar argument in a post he wrote on the CRRC’s experience.

The Institute of Development Studies as a model?

[Editor’s note: I should note that I am not trying to describe the IDS model in detail. I am using it to encourage a discussion of the possibility for a new form of think tank – university partnership.]

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) was founded as an independent research institute based at the University of Sussex, but it does not belong to the university. IDS has close links with the University, but is financially and constitutionally independent. It is, in fact, registered in England as a charitable company (no. 00877338) limited by guarantee, and with registered charity number 306371.

This hosting takes the shape of a contract between both institutions. IDS pays a ‘fee’ to the University of Sussex for its use of its building, university services, and other benefits. A straight forward contractual arrangement that works well for both.

IDS’s original mission included both research and teaching so the relationship with the university allowed it to obtain accreditation for its teaching programmes. At the same time, the university gained a new centre and teaching programme -which at the time was not something one could find any where else in the UK.

Some characteristics of this relationship, from IDS’ point of view, include:

  • IDS is governed by a Board of Trustees, who are responsible for agreeing our overall strategy, setting policy, monitoring performance and promoting the interests of the Institute.
  • Consequently, IDS has its own identity. Its website is separate from the university’s: this is IDS‘ and this is the University of Sussex’s (and this is the UofS’ international development programme).
  • IDS has control over its communications, including how and what it communicates. In fact, its head of comms is part of the strategic leadership group.
  • Funding from its clients or funders is provided to IDS and not to the university. This means that the when a funder or client funds an IDS researcher to undertake a study, it is funding IDS and not the University of Sussex.
  • As a consequence, IDS has control over its finances including how it manages its income, allocating it to different objectives as it sees fit.
  • This means IDS can make strategic choices about the issues it wants to study and how it wants to go about doing so. It can establish partnerships with other organisations independently of the university. Its board and its strategic leadership group make sure of that.
  • IDS’ staff is hired by the think tank but benefits from the affiliation to the university when it comes to staff benefits. Not all IDS staff have teaching responsibilities and its strategic freedom allows it to allocate these as it best sees fit.
  • The university acredites the institutes’ teaching programmes. Although IDS runs its own international development postgraduate programmes, students effectively graduate from University of Sussex.

Is this the best model for a think tank in a developing country? Well, it is a start.

The IDS model is different to what I had in mind in terms of funding. The win-win situation we are referring too implies that universities would have to fund the think tanks to do research -at least a significant proportion of its long term research agenda. In the case of IDS its largest five donors in 2013/14 were:

  1. UK Department for International Development (38.9%)
  2. Economic and Social Research Council (9.3%)
  3. International Development Research Centre (4.3%)
  4. Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (4.1%)
  5. Program for Appropriate Technology (3.8%)

So, in this case, the university is not a key funder. But in our model, and in contexts where universities are well funded but lack the capacity to undertake research themselves, we could expect a significant proportion of funding for research to come from the university itself. Some of those USD274 million in the case of Peru could make a huge difference for more than a few think tanks in the country and, why not, the region.

This last point is important. This model should work with foreign think tanks, too. Cash-rich universities wanting to leap-frog to the international leagues could very well attract global think tanks to set-up shop within their campuses -physically or virtually.

A new win-win model

Therefore, the new model proposed could involve:

  • A partnership or contract between an independent think tank (with its own legal status, board, leadership, and identity), most likely a charity, and a University, public or private.
  • Core funding from the university for the think tank to undertake core academic and/or practical research on issues that are set by the think tank but with, understandable and appropriate, influence of the university -maybe through the think tank’s board or an advisory committee.
  • A likely condition that core funding may be providing against the expectation of a certain number of academic publications per researcher or overall. This is particularly relevant for universities interested in improving their local and international ranking.
  • Either or both the participation of the think tank’s researchers in teaching programmes led by the university or the accreditation, by the university, of a teaching programme led by the think tank.
  • A payment, from the think tank to the university, for items such as rent (in case the university provides the think tank with office space), utilities, services, and, possibly, he university’s good will. This payment may be agreed as all cash or part cash part in-kind. It could be a fixed amount or may involve a degree of variability, for instance, through an overhead charged on each project or on the institute’s operating profits (annually or multi-annually).
  • A number of rights  and responsibilities from both parties to protect each institution from the actions of the other as well as to ensure each other’s independence – intellectual, operational and financial- yet take full advantage of the association.

Making this happen will take more than lawyers (but they will be necessary). It will demand a charm offensive and the development of long term partnerships.  A possible road-map could include:

  • An internship programme to provide students or graduates at the university to join think tanks. Again, ad-hoc arrangements based on personal relationships need to be replaced for formal agreements based on institutional links.
  • Small research projects that can help to build trust and strengthen the links between both organisations.
  • A visiting lecturers programme through which researchers at the think tank participate in teaching programmes at the university. Many researchers at think tanks already teach part-time at local universities. But the relationship in these cases is mostly based on personal relations rather than at an institutional level.
  • Long-term research programmes funded by the University (or through the university) involving the think tank’s researchers.

These may involve some costs that think tanks and their funders should be willing to accept. The pay-off is likely to make up for it.

They may also demand change to universities’ own mandates and rules and in the case of public universities, it could involve national educational policy changes, too.

Who better than think tanks to advocate for them?

Do you know of a similar model? Please write to us below and let us know its pros and cons.