Think tanks are taking notice of the canaries dying around them

17 October 2023

Just 15% of respondents say it’s getting easier to operate as a think tank, according to the 2023 Think tank state of the sector report.

And over 50% of respondents in Latin America & the Caribbean, the USA & Canada, and Africa say it is getting harder to operate.

I think of think tanks not so much as the canary in the coal mine but as the miners holding the cage.

Think tanks are not on the front lines; a space reserved for activists and some journalists, innovators and the most vulnerable. By their nature, most think tanks try to maintain some distance from front-line members of their communities. Some distance themselves too much, unfortunately. But most are closer – much more than they would like to think.

Depending on the type of regime, other members of those communities will feel the brunt of new behaviours and policies that restrict their space for operation. Civil servants or party members may see their activities curtailed first; activists may experience an increase in harassment and control; journalists will find it harder to report.

Think tanks will not be far behind in feeling the effects. Survey respondents reported a worsening in the political context. In 2023, one of India’s leading independent think tanks was temporarily closed. Peruvian think tanks have seen the opportunities to collaborate with the government all but disappear. Think tanks across West Africa are struggling to find a voice amid a wave of military coups. And the new forms of ideological polarisation of US and European politics are displacing think tanks from their traditional communities.

On top of this the funding context in 2023 turned out to be worse than expected. In 2022, 29% predicted that the funding context would worsen; in 2023, 34% reported that it had worsened; and this year 50% of the thinktankers surveyed predict a worsening in the year ahead.

Think tanks are taking notice of the canaries dying around them.

It should surprise us then that almost half of survey respondents expect their sector to grow. How can this be?

It’s worth remembering that the think tank world is one of many contrasts. You’ll find researchers from think tanks with millions of dollars in reserves sat on a panel with those from organisations surviving financially month by month. You’ll see one think tank invest in a new website what is the entire annual budget of another think tank. You might find a small, young think tank outperform larger, older peers – often because they are in the right place at the right time, with the right answer.

And so, while the think tank sector as a whole might be set to grow, this is not the case across the board.  For instance, while 53% of think tanks founded before 2000 plan to grow, only 13% of think tanks founded since 2000 have the same plans. The difference between larger and smaller think tanks is similar. And the Open Think Tank Directory has consistently shown that female-led think tanks are on average smaller than male-led ones.

These inequalities in the sector should rally-us to respond with the kind of nuance that we demand from think tanks themselves

First, I think it is necessary to dive deeper into regional and national think tank communities. Just as every research report out there would say: we need more research. The ‘Think tank state of the sector’ report and the Open Think Tank Directory are a public good. Global headlines can hide the diversity of experiences of individual think tanks and think tank communities. We invite anyone who wants to support the generation and use of local level data to get in touch with us.

Second, we need to pay attention to the needs of newer and smaller think tanks as well as those led by women and other under-represented groups. We recognise that think tanks are part of a wider context. We do not expect female-led think tanks will magically buck the trend of other female-led organisations in their countries unless substantive changes take place across society and within the education and research systems. But those that exist today should be supported.

We should also be open to explore alternative yet realistic models – even if they seemingly go against everything, we believe in

At the OTT Conference 2023 at Chatham House, Simon Maxwell put forward an idea that I think is worth exploring. He argues that the mounting challenges facing think tanks – the increasingly costly investments necessary to overcome them, the relatively risk-averse and exclusive nature of policy research funding, and, in many parts of the world, the limited offer of sufficiently well prepared thinktankers – makes it difficult to sustain more than a few adequately resourced and sustainable think tanks.

In practice, this is what we have today in most of the world. A few very large and well-resourced think tanks that attract most of the funding and attention, and many small and cash-strapped think tanks that barely make ends meet. This situation is worse in the Global South. Across Africa, in fact, just a handful of think tanks are in most research funders’ portfolios.

Would it then not make more sense to invest in policy research ecosystems that are led by one or two large and sustainable organisations surrounded by many smaller, specialised and well-resourced centres, research groups, collaborations, or individuals that generate innovative ideas, help communicate recommendations, facilitate engagement with local communities, etc.?

When things get harder, think tanks tend to compete with each other. By their nature, funders, policymakers and the media encourage this.

When things get harder, think tanks should explore new and creative ways to collaborate and support each other and, ultimately, their purpose: better and more informed decisions on matters of public interest.

First published on the From Poverty to Power blog: ‘Think tanks are struggling. They need to change‘.