Think Tanks and Universities: Practical Considerations

15 October 2012
SERIES Think tanks and universities 8 items

From what I have seen both from my time at CRRC and more recent encounters with think tanks, I entirely agree with Enrique on the synergies between think tanks and universities (see Enrique’s post on funding university based think tanks). I want to follow up by drawing attention to the more practical side of this symbiotic relationship as well as the significant risks that these linkages can bring.


The most practical synergy for think tanks at universities is space. Being located at a university offers access to its lecture halls and seminar rooms. If think tanks want to convene, they need a centrally located conference room for 80+ people. Think tanks thus require real estate where it is most expensive. In medium-priced capitals such a space will cost more than $20.000 to rent annually, or upward of $700 per event at a hotel or conference center. At universities, space can be shared, greatly reducing costs.

The same think tank/university synergy applies to office space. Universities may be able to eke out a few rooms in exchange for the contribution that a think tank brings. One of CRRC’s think tanks had spent two cramped years in a commercial office building, at $55,000 a year, without a lecture hall, before moving into Azerbaijan’s oldest private university.

Given the joint interest in research, there are other practical synergies: if it wants to be plugged into ongoing debates, a think tank needs a small library and access to journals. Yet, as with space, most think tanks do not need a library enough to justify big investments, or the salary of an experienced librarian. In a low-income country, the annual costs for purchases, space and staff will start at $25,000. Add extra computers for data processing or training, an additional projector for an event, translation headphones, a focus group room, full-time security staff, and costs quickly escalate.

Totalling up this back-of-the-envelope calculation, a think tank can easily spend anywhere up from $80,000 per year on basic facilities. Meanwhile, there are many expensive items both universities and think tanks need, and neither need full-time. At a university, the money a think tank saves on infrastructure can be invested in joint research projects, internships, library investments, speaker series or visiting lecturers/scholars.

Think tank sustainability is another part of the university synergy: if the think tank does not enjoy stable long-term core support, it will struggle to retain talent. Appointments at university can keep qualified senior researchers funded and available to engage in think tank activities. Intermittent funding is not a problem that Brookings is likely to have, but it’s a reality in many developing countries, or for younger think tanks. Universities can thus, indirectly, provide some core support for the organization.

And then there are huge advantages for universities, in that think tanks contribute to public discourse and policy debates in ways that universities cannot. Weighing in on specific issues is beyond the mission of universities. Academics, in turn, much as they may be heard as individual intellectuals, typically are not organized for deep policy linkages. Think tanks, as teams, are much better set up to make a systemic impact, since they can engage in sustained advocacy. They have staff to analyze data sets quickly, systems for peer review, and ideally communication staff that can reach out to decision-makers. Their successful work, in turn, feeds into teaching, making the universities more attractive for students, as Enrique also pointed out.


With all these advantages, why are think tanks not always placed at universities? Think tanks can do more with less, they gain reach, students learn, universities become more visible. It would seem the default option, an obvious symbiosis. Yet there are number of constraints and challenges that the relationship needs to navigate.

First, think tanks need to ensure their independence. This can prove a challenge, especially in murky political contexts. One June, I received a call from our Armenian director. She told me that we had been asked to move our office, located with the leading State University. Apparently the Economics Faculty needed our rooms. I traveled to Yerevan, and was shown a confined substitute space. We had a sinking feeling: continuing in that architectural exile was going to be tough. We were wondering whether this threat was related to our widely visible corruption study. That study had demonstrated that corruption in Armenia had gotten worse, in spite of much-promised reform. No one made that link explicit, so we didn’t finally know. We played for time, and were lucky to have top-level political support in the diaspora, and ended staying in place. Somehow the Economics Faculty coped. While we were fortunate to have outside support, this story illustrates the vulnerabilities of university-based think tanks when the findings of their research are at odds with the potent interests at play in a university.

The vulnerability of university-based think tanks makes a powerful board all-important. Board members should be senior enough to trump university encroachments, whether they are about physical space, or more overt attempts to interfere with research or staffing. Governance can be interlinked, although it is preferable that the university leadership does not serve in the think tank board. The presence of university administrators on the board may reinforce the notion that there is a reporting line from the think tank to the university leadership. Instead it’s preferable to have shared board members. That was indeed the arrangement we had for CRRC’s Georgian office: one of our board members was also the chair of the board of our host institution. This gave us good assurance. We knew we had a fallback in case the annual renegotiation of rent would get out of hand.

Strong arrangements are necessary to ensure that the think tank remains nimble. I have seen university-based think tanks in which there is such tight supervision by the university that the think tank could not respond to ongoing political issues, or proactively promote a particular policy. Consequently, the institution restricts itself to responding to requests from government agencies, as well as publishing reports of the “State of the National Economy” type. Like a utility provider, the work of such a think tank can be valuable, important and reliable. However, less tightly integrated think tanks are more likely to innovate and be entrepreneurial within policy debates.

Independence and agility can be secured by a separate legal entity for the university-based think tank. The success of policy research projects often depends on quickly assembling teams, to be responsive to ongoing issues. A separate entity allows dedicated staffing and implementation. Integral to our fundraising at CRRC was our efficient CFO with private sector experience at Ernst & Young. He ensured that we got all the contracts implemented, up to 150 enumerators hired per survey, each paid according to how many interviews they did, and paid on time, all the taxes deducted and documented, for internal and external audits, the full financial report going back to the donor or client, and all of this many times over throughout the year, and each project slightly different, often with different tax configurations or exemptions.

Some university administrations are not geared to administer research projects flexibly and quickly. They focus on mass administration, not bespoke responsiveness. Illustrating how organisational integration can reduce flexibility, one university-based think tank said that it typically takes them a year to hire full-time staff, since they have to follow university procedures.

Hiring more generally requires strategic design: how will the position of the Executive Director be filled? From within the university? Would the Executive Director have to be a full professor? Could an Executive Director who is not a professor command sufficient respect within the university? Some of these considerations make the candidate pool rather small, and may risk that the appointment is not only based on merit, but also on patronage. Advance thinking should address these issues. For example, one experienced leader in a university-based think tank restructured his organisation’s bylaws, to ensure that candidates would be recruited through a broad search, and not be an internal appointment. This reinforces the role of a powerful board, which forms a selection committee.

Still a good opportunity

In summary, there are very powerful synergies, suggesting that it makes much sense for think tanks to base themselves at universities, or very close to them. For think tanks, especially young ones, it can be worth making themselves attractive for universities. This can be done by identifying comparable role models, and thus building the case for one’s potential host with a vivid and visitable example.

However, good fences make good neighbors: there is a risk that some of the most valuable aspects of a think tank – honesty, responsiveness to policy context, flexibility – can be smothered if the university’s embrace gets too tight. Universities thus play the biggest role in making the synergy possible, by offering secure physical, organizational and intellectual space. Lastly, donors can be constructive facilitators, by sharing experience, providing outside support and reinforcing governance, until a long-term virtuous cycle kicks in.