Why think tanks should employ fewer researchers

12 December 2018

It makes sense for the majority of think tank staff to be researchers, right? After all, a think tank is a research institute with a focus on informing or influencing public policy.

Of course think tanks need communications and programme staff too. But these are seen as supporting staff to help the researchers to do their job.

But if the end goal is to inform or influence policy, then no one professional role is more important than the other.

Half the job is doing the research, the other half is having an influence or impact with it.

So, here’s what I propose: a 50:50 split of research and communications staff.

I’ve been lucky to have worked for a think tank that took communications seriously. When I told communications staff from smaller organisations about our central communications team of 15+, and the 1-2 communications staff in each research programme, their jaws dropped.

It is impressive. But still, that was a team of 30 communications professionals for more than 150 research staff. We were stretched thin and too often (although not always) brought into the fold at the end of the project to make the report look pretty and to tweet about it.

Think tank communications is – or should be – so much more than that. It’s about strategic thinking. It’s about helping to identify from the outset who your audiences are and what your policy goals are. It’s about pulling out the research story; to shape the messages; to find the best formats, channels and tools to reach your audiences and ultimately achieve your goals.

50:50 doesn’t necessarily mean 50 hard-core researchers and 50-pure communicators – ideally, many staff have, or develop, skills in both. On Think Tanks has already argued that the future of researchers must involve being good communicators. And I personally know many skilled practitioners who bridge these roles.

Generally speaking though, researchers and communicators bring different skills to the table. It’s not a tag-team race: the researcher’s job doesn’t end when the research report is written, nor does the communicator’s job begin there. We must work together, side-by-side, from start to finish.

And in the modern think tank, no one role should be more valued than the other.

Of course, getting funding for communications isn’t always easy. Time and time again I’ve seen communications budgets cut down to their bare-bones, either at the donor’s request, or in anticipation that the donor will ask for it / select another proposal with a smaller budget.

Funders and think tanks like to push the idea that good evidence influences policy, so that’s where the money should be focused. When in fact, credible evidence influences policy. And evidence is only credible when it is communicated properly.  

Some of the big funders are starting to recognise this and invest more in communications. But this tends to be linked to project budgets, rather than institutional balance of roles.

So, what can we do? I’ve argued in the past that monitoring and learning from our communications is the best way to build an evidence-base in support for communications. I was encouraged to read that the International Panel on Climate Change ‘has now recognised that it should take the same approach to communications as it does to science: go with the evidence base.’

I also believe that think tanks (especially the bigger more established ones) should be having honest conversations with donors, wherever possible, about the need to fund communications properly if we want to have an influence or impact.

So please, please, please can someone set up or fund the 50:50 think tank? Or perhaps it already exists … ?

(I’ve focused here on the researcher-communications staff ratio, but I this is also relevant to programme and grant management staff, who are also often spread too thin and undervalued)