“What the heck is a think tank, anyway?” asks an intern

13 June 2012
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Think tanks always seemed like rather mysterious entities to me. I imagined them as places, over there in the Capital, where men with big brains and suits cooked up solutions to problems that I couldn’t even begin to understand. More than once my friends have asked, jokingly, “So, like, are you going to think in a tank?”

I’m currently assisting Grupo FARO’s Research Director Andrea Ordóñez put together a report for an upcoming conference in South Africa organized by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Through its Think Tank Initiative (TTI), IDRC seeks to support, both financially and technically, independent research institutions in developing countries. Grupo FARO is one of 49 grantees of the project and is currently coordinating and writing a document profiling and analyzing stories of successful policy influence by various think tanks in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

We’ve been working on this project for several weeks now and still I find myself unable to coherently answer the most basic questions. What are think tanks? Where do they come from? What do they do? I’ve got experts by my side, websites and blogs a click away, and a pile of books sitting on my desk and I’m at a total loss of how to begin answering these questions.

The term think tank is a rather ambiguous one and definitions vary. After having read twelve accounts of how think tanks from all over the world have been able to influence public policy as part of the project, I can say that think tanks can be as different as the colors of the rainbow. They come in all shapes and sizes, have different core values and missions, work in a range of different issues, use different methodologies, and employ different strategies to reach different targets. Many of the authors I’ve consulted define think tanks by comparing them to other entities: “universities without students”, “more intellectual variants of pressure groups”, “idea factories”. Yet these descriptions are hardly satisfactory and only capture one facet of what a think tank is.

At the most basic level, a think tank is a place where people (hopefully smart ones) get together to explore and come up with solutions to important problems. I believe think tanks are most often conceived as independent research institutions that are made up of intellectuals and seek to influence government policy. In the scientific tradition, they use evidence derived from investigation to form and inform public policy. In Spanish “think tank” translates to centro de investigación aplicada or instituto de investigación de políticas públicas (literally “center for applied research” and “public policy research institute”, respectively) (Correa & Mendizabal, 2011, p. 14). Research becomes practical, a tool to create policies that better serve society. Think tanks are institutions that seek to create better societies.

Mine is a very general lay understanding of think tanks. Here are some other definitions and characterizations that I’ve come across so far:

  • Diane Stone (2004) writes that most definitions of think tanks fall into one of two categories: those that emphasize the organizational structure as the defining quality of a think tank and, alternatively, those that examine its functions and what it does (specifically policy research) as the main evidence of its think-tankiness (pp. 1-2). The latter definition has become more popular as think tanks have become more widespread and transformed.
  • Donald E. Abelson and Ever A. Lindquist (2000), speaking on North American think tanks, write, “…think tanks are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations engaged in the study of public policy…” (p. 38). They point out that few scholars have tried to differentiate between think tanks and other non-governmental organizations. What’s more, there is increasing overlap between the natures of think tanks and interest groups as each one attempts to adopt strategies of the other. According to the authors, there are about 300 think tanks in the United States excluding university-affiliated institutes.
  • John C. Goodman (2005) of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) describes think tanks as “idea factories” where intellectuals come together to investigate alternative solutions to policy issues. He distinguishes between “one roof” model think tanks, in which intellectuals are physically gathered, and post-Internet “organizations without walls” which are considerably more flexible and efficient but potentially less established and renowned. Furthermore, Goodman describes think tanks as businesses that work for results; “intellectual entrepreneurs” use knowledge to create change and think tanks “market” themselves and their ideas.
  • Yet the predominant and rigid Anglo-American definition of think tanks fails to accommodate the growing number of think tanks in other countries. Diane Stone explores the complexities of defining think tanks. I was attracted to the following description of hers: “think tanks collect, synthesize and create a range of information products, often directed towards a political or bureaucratic audience, but sometimes also for the benefit of the media, interest groups, business, international civil society and the general public of the nation” (2004, p. 3).
  • In his blog onthinktanks, Enrique Mendizabal offers a definition of think tanks based on what they are not. “The more narrow definition: an organisation not governed by the rules of academia, policy, the media or the private sector and that seeks policy influence through research (also broad) informed arguments,” he writes (2011). Rather, a think tank is at the intersection of all these dimensions and something more.

These are just some of the scholars I’ve consulted so far in my quest to learn more about those enigmatic organisms we call think tanks. I plan to keep building on this knowledge, and of course, to keep you all updated as I do!

P.S. The books I’ve been reading are: