On Think Tanks Conference 2019

Organised by On Think Tanks, foraus, University of Bath, Universidad del Pacífico
Event type Event
Location Think Tank Hub, Geneva
Start date 4 February 2019
End date 7 February 2019

The On Think Tanks Conferences are an opportunity to bring together thinktankers, think tank scholars, policy entrepreneurs and think tanks funders from around the world to share experiences, present their research, co-develop solutions to common challenges and establish new or strengthen old partnerships.

The On Think Tanks Conference is organised by OTT in collaboration with foraus and the Think Tank Hub, the University of Bath, Universidad del Pacífico,  Soapboxwith the support from the Hewlett Foundation, the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the Open Society Foundations, SENACYT (the Panamanian science and technology council).+

The OTT Conference was initially conceived as a chance to invite OTT’s collaborators and partners to join the OTT Team following our own annual meeting. After the first conference in February 2017, we decided to gradually broaden the number and range of participants to include individuals who may or may not have collaborated with OTT but who would contribute to a rich and fruitful discussion. In 2018, about 80 thinktankers from all over the world engaged on thoughtful debate and networking.

Read more about the OTT 2018 conference.

Watch the OTT 2018 Conference:

The OTT Conference is designed to provide participants with as much freedom as possible to determine the issues they wish to address, lead the organisation of panels or workshops, and shape the meeting’s outcomes. It has taken us a few months to come up with the programme below.

The Think Tank Hub‘s venue in Geneva also offers all participants the opportunity to meet each other in smaller groups or bilaterally to establish new or strengthen existing partnerships. We will build in time for this to take place.

Finally, OTT will record the Conference and report it to a wider audience, hence maximising the benefits for those who were not able to attend.

You can follow us via @onthinktanks fb.com/onthinktanks and #thinktanksmatter #ottconference

Who is this for?

The Conference is for think tank leaders and thinktankers, policy entrepreneurs in the field of evidence informed policymaking, policy research funders and think tank scholars who are interested in critical unpacking the think tank label, addressing the opportunities and challenges these organisations face, and exploring the changes within and around them.

This is not an open conference – mainly, because space is limited (and we are full already). But if you wish to be considered, please email us: [email protected]. We will let you know as soon as possible. You will be able to follow the discussion via @onthinktanks fb.com/onthinktanks and #thinktanksmatter #ottconference

The Conference is a perfect space to:

  • Present new research on think tanks or evidence informed policy and seek feedback from fellow participants;
  • Seek out help or support from peers to address a challenge or take advantage of an emerging opportunity;
  • Explore new collaboration and launch new partnerships;
  • Learn about think tanks, how to fund and support them, how best to work with them, etc.

Who will be there?

Checkout who was there in 2018: the OTT 2018 Conference participants.

Confirmed participants include (and more):

  • Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA – South Africa)
  • Jeff Knezovich (WHO – Switzerland)
  • Gurucharan Gollerkeri (PAC India – India)
  • Keith Burnet (Chatham House – UK)
  • Saviour Mwambwa (OSF – US)
  • Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice –  Ecuador)
  • Lukas Hupfer (foraus – Switzerland)
  • Pamela Nakamba-Kabaso (ZIPAR – Zambia)
  • Chuka Onyekwena (CSEA – Nigeria)
  • Michael Kleiman (Media Tank – US)
  • Ana Patricia Muñoz (Grupo Faro – Ecuador)
  • Scarlett Varga (BRUEGEL – Belgium)
  • Fayyaz Yaseen (Accountability Lab – Pakistan)
  • John Schwartz (Soapbox – UK)
  • Tom Hashemi (We are Flint – UK)
  • Gjergji Vurmo (Institute for Democracy and Mediation – Albania)
  • Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP – Serbia)
  • Jordi Guillamet (IEA – Andorra)
  • Jill Rutter (Institute for Government – UK)
  • Tarik Nesh-Nash (GovRight – Morroco)
  • Cameron Neylon (Curtin University – Australia)
  • Sherine Ghoneim (EDF – Egypt) 
  • Claire Talon (Arab Reform Initiative -France)
  • Slim Bahrini (Maghreb Economic Forum – Tunisia)
  • Rob McLean (IDRC – Canada)
  • Marjorie Alain (Partnership for Economic Policy – Canada)
  • Jordan Tchilingirian (University of Bath – UK)
  • James Bramble (GrantSmart -UK)
  • Dmytro Khutkyy (OTT Fellow, Fulbright alumni, RPR)
  • Norma Correa (PUCP – Peru)
  • Renata Hessmann- Dalaqua (United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research – Switzerland)
  • James Cockayne (Centre for Policy Research at United Nations University – US)
  • Memory Kachambwa (African Women’s Development and Communication Network – Kenya)
  • Nisrine Ouazzani (Policy Center for the New South – Morroco)
  • Denis Foretia (Denis & Lenora Foretia Foundation and Nkafu Policy Institute – Cameroon)
  • David Gomez Alvares (Transversal – Mexico)
  • Kerry Albright (UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti – Italy)
  • Diana Thorburn (Caribbean Policy Research Institute – Jamaica)
  • Joe Miller (Soapbox -US)
  • Adanna Shallowe (RSA – UK)
  • Faisal Baawad (Saudi Center for International Strategic Partnerships – Saudi Arabia)
  • Gang Li (Center for Chinese Think Tank Studies and Evacuation – China)
  • And more…

What will we talk about?

The OTT Conference is an opportunity to explore a range of issues of great interest to think tanks and the broader evidence informed policy field. The main theme for the 2019 Conference is “public engagement”.

What if I want to talk about something else?

There are going to be spaces (offices and meeting rooms designed for small teams to work in) available and time during breaks and lunches to discuss some of these issues with other participants. We will help you find those interested in the same things as you.


The following outline has been developed in close consultation with the participants. If you want to keep an eye on the official programme as it is finalised keep coming back to this page.

Monday 4th February, 13:00- 18:00 . Academic meeting (at the Think Tank Hub) 


As part of the conference week, and with the support of the University of Bath we are organising an academic session for think tank scholars. In this event, scholars are invited to present their work on think tanks and evidence informed policy, to engage in discussion with fellow participants, and to discuss potential joint work. Read the abstracts here: OTT Academic session abstracts

The agenda is as follows:

13:00 – 13:15 Arrive and registration

13:15–13:40 Welcome and introduction

13:40–14:20 Public engagement

  • “Strategies pursued by Mexican think tanks to reach the general public”  Alejandra Salas Porras-UNAM, México
  • “Think tanks and social movements” Ajoy Datta- On Think Tanks

14:20–14:40 Book discussion: British think tanks and the 2008 financial crisis

  • Marcos González Hernando –Affiliated Researcher, University of Cambridge
  • Discussant: Erin Zimmerman

14:40–15:20 Think tanks and ideology

  • Partisan think tanks: informed policy programmes or political recruitment” Leandro Echt- On Think Tanks
  • “Neoliberal think tank networks in Latin America: strategic replication and cross-national organizing” Dr. Karin Fischer, Kepler University Linz, Austria

1530-1600 Coffee break

1600–1620 Private funding and think tanks

  • “Think tanks and private sector funding: opportunities and challenges” Andrea Baertl- On Think Tanks

1620-1730 Agenda setting and avenues for impact

  • “The EVITA framework: framework for mental health research evidence into policymaking and agenda setting in low- and middle-income countries” Nicole Votruba- PHD student King’s College, UK.
  • “The role of China’s think tanks and universities in China’s foreign policy towards Africa: a rising epistemic community?” Martina Bassan Ph.D. -CERI, Sciences Po Paris
  • “(In)formal diplomacy after all? Regional Security Dialogues as Discursive Space: A Comparative Analysis in Europe and Asia” Erin Zimmerman- Associate the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
  • “From Idea to institution, the emergence of regulatory network in Iran” Dr. Seyed M.S. Emamian, Founder and Head of the Board of Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT)

1730-1800 Close and next steps

Monday 4th February, 7:00pm: Public event on think tanks and public engagement: how can think tanks successfully engage with the general public? (at the Impact Hub Geneva )

To open the OTT Conference we will organise a public event in Geneva in partnership with foraus.

  • Keith Burnet (Chatham House) – on foreign policy
  • Savior Mwambwa (OSF) – on global fiscal policy
  • Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice) – on the SDGs and Agenda 2030
  • Chair: Enrique Mendizabal (On Think Tanks)

Tuesday 5th– Wednesday 6th February: OTT 2019 Conference (at the Think Tank Hub)

Outline for the 2-day schedule: topics will be reviewed and defined by the participants themselves. There are 3 types of spaces to share ideas:

  • Plenary presentations and debates are 30-45 minutes long (presentations should not be more than 15 minutes long) and intended to give us “something to think about”
  • Parallel sessions are 1h 30 minutes
  • Extended coffee-breaks (30mins) and lunch-breaks (1h 30mins) will allow participants to engage with each other directly.

Keep an eye out for updates!

Tuesday 5th February

Note: parallel sessions will take place in 4 rooms depending on demand: 2 hold up to 40 people and 2 hold about 15 people.

900-930: Welcome: Enrique Mendizabal welcomes everyone to the 3rd On Think Tanks Conference. A brief round of (name/ organisation / country) introductions and an explanation of the “rules of the game”.

930-1000: Keynote 1 (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA): “Engaging a global audience – think tanks and the G20”

1000-1030: Keynote 2 (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Lukas Hupfer (foraus): “Collective intelligence – is the grassroots think tank model only possible in Switzerland?”

1030-1100: Coffee break

1100-1230: Parallel A

  • “Evolving the model of think tank communications” convened by We are Flint on the basis of a survey of what the public knows and thinks of think tanks (LARGE ROOM 1)
    • We are Flint’s ‘new model for think tank communications’ focuses on reaching out to the public with research findings, as a way of influencing policy. It is built on their 2018 quantitative research assessing the US and UK public’s perceptions of think tanks and how well policy is communicated by the policy community more broadly. In this session, Tom and Aidan will be discussing how think tanks are viewed, the way in which social media is re-shaping the policy environment, and the new challenge for think tank communications. In particular, they will be exploring how this new environment is being exploited by groups like the alt-right, and what think tanks can do as champions of evidence-based policy.+
  • “Looking on the bright side of life: are think tanks really facing a perfect storm?” convened by Pamela Nakamba-Kabaso (ZIPAR), Ana Patricia Muñoz (Grupo Faro), Gurucharan Gollerkeri (PAC India), Scarlett Varga (Bruegel). (LARGE ROOM 2)
    • In this session, representatives from Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe will reflect on the biggest challenges and opportunities facing think tanks in the regions over the next 5 years. Together, we will co-develop a full picture of what the sector can expect going forward and, possibly, some practical responses to a rapidly changing context.
  • “#thinktankstoo: how can think tanks better engage with and support social movements?” convened by Savior Mwambwa (OSF) and Ajoy Datta (On Think Tanks) (BOARD ROOM)
    • OSF and OTT have embarked in a new project to study the relationship between think tanks and social movements. The study has the intention of identifying possible opportunities for support, through think tanks, of social movements in a manner that enhances rather than constrain their dynamic, porous and fluid nature.  This study also responds to our collective interest to learn how think tanks may be better able to reach out, meaningfully, to the general public. The session offers a chance to present the draft report and incorporate feedback and new cases. +

12:30-1400: Lunch

1400-1430: Keynote 3: (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Caroline Fiennes (Giving Evidence) on “What funders think about when they think about funding think tanks”

1430-1600: Parallel B

  • “Hearts and minds: communicating beyond evidence-based policy” convened by John Schwartz (Soapbox), Keith Burnet (Chatham House) and Stephanie Mathisen (Sense about Science). (LARGE ROOM 1)
    • Think tanks have always sought to present themselves as sources of objective debate and analysis. But is there really a public demand for evidence-based policy? Are we communicating in the wrong ways, to the wrong people and putting ourselves at risk of losing relevance and credibility? In this session we examine the role think tanks have in promoting basic values like peace, sustainability and justice. We look at practical ways we can go about expressing and framing these principles. And we explore how the choices we make around values and evidence impact the ways in which we engage with the wider public.
  • “Evidence informed policy: what is the end game?” convened by Kerry Albright (UNICEF), Josephine Tsui (ODI) and Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice) (LARGE ROOM 2)
    • In this session we challenge the usual questions we ask about this field so that we can come up with meaningful recommendations for action. The question, what is the end game? suggests we have to accept some kind of balance between evidence and politics (and values) – there are certain things for which the arguments need to be driven by or supported by values; or that we must recognise that there may be a “good enough use of evidence” in certain contexts; or that there is so much we can ask from governments or think tanks or the media, etc. individually, before we ask more from others (all boats need to rise together); or that we may just have enough evidence for the decisions that need to be made and that calls for more data may be distracting resources from where they are desperately needed.
  • “How to be a think tank in a captured state?” convened by Gjergji Vurmo (Institute for Democracy and Mediation), Sonja Stojanovic Gajic (BCSP) and Daniel Gómez Álvarez (Transversal) (BOARD ROOM)
    • Several regions of the world are facing a new context in which a few people in power are using legal means to concentrate greater power and resources for their private gain. Such situation put think tanks in a difficult position: their institution and policy elite-oriented approach to research and advocacy can be counterproductive, as it strengthens these very same power hungry individuals or engages think tanks in discussing the facade rather than the the “real government” behind the Government. It is also highly challenging due to increased limits to access to information, the shrinking space for deliberation and polarised and populist debates. This has led some to reconsider how to work with and support activist organisations and independent journalists. Are think tanks equipped to assist protection of democracies under attack?

1600-1630: Tea break

1630-1730: Show and tell: hands-on learning opportunities  (all participants may submit proposals – email: [email protected])

  • “How to handle Brexit?” by the Institute for Government (Jill Rutter) (LARGE ROOM 1)
  • “Everything you always wanted to know about supporting think tanks (but were afraid to ask)” by the Think Tank Initiative on the basis of the Think Tank Initiative’s evaluation (LARGE ROOM 2)
  • “The Open Think Tanks Network: lessons learned so far and the way forward” by foraus (BOARD ROOM)

1730-1800: Report back

Free evening but join us for drinks at the …  (we will announce soon)

Wednesday 6th February

Note: parallel sessions will take place in 4 rooms depending on demand: 2 hold up to 40 people and 2 hold about 15 people.

900-930: Welcome back: Enrique Mendizabal facilitates a session with interventions from the participants themselves. (LARGE ROOM 1)

930-1000: Keynote 4: (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Tarik Nesh-Nash (GovRight): “Opening the civic space in the Maghreb using technology”

1000-1030: Keynote 5: (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Cameron Neylon (Curtin University): “Research excellence is a neo-colonial agenda”

1030-1100: Coffee break

1100-1230: Parallel C

  • “Building global networks” convened by Andrea Ordoñez (Southern Voice), Barassou Diawara (ACBF), Elizabeth Sidiropoulos (SAIIA), Adanna Shallowe (The RSA) (LARGE ROOM 1)
    • Think tanks are increasingly engaging in regional and global spaces. The T20 recently organised by Argentina and South Africa offered think tanks in these countries the opportunity to take a leading role at the world stage. Regional networks and global think tank networks present opportunities for think tanks and researchers to collaborate to address shared challenges. However, shining at the world stage and effectively convening cross-country networks is easier said that done. What have these think tanks and initiatives learned from their own experiences?
  • “Gender in think tanks” convened by Shannon Sutton (IDRC), Josephine Tsui (ODI), Scarlett Varga (Bruegel and Brussels Binder) and Norma Correa (PUCP and Grupo Sofía) (LARGE ROOM 2)
    • Grupo Sofia, in Peru, is a research and action initiative that seeks to understand and promote the role of women in social sciences. The Brussels Binder, in Brussels, aims to raise the profile of women in the EU policy-research-media community. These experiences offer a starting point for a discussion on a range of conceptual and practical issues: Why are gender equitable think tanks desirable/important? What are the benefits and drawbacks of quotas? How can funders support organisations to address gender equality?

1230-1400: Lunch

1400-1445: Networking: (LARGE ROOM 1)

  • Opportunity to get to know each other and our work better

1445-1615: Parallel D

  • “Unrestricted core funding is over: how to move on?” convened by James Bramble (GrantSmart) and Chuka Onyekwena (CSEA) (LARGE ROOM 1)
    • For many think tanks, unrestricted core funding is fast becoming a thing of the past. Their funders are less likely to provide this kind of support in the future. But moving on seems hard. Many have become accustomed to this kind of funding: their governance and management arrangements, their financial management, their research agendas and communication strategies all reflect the nature of core funding. Think tanks will have to go through deep organisational reforms before they can actively embrace other types of funding.+
  • “Future thinktankers” convened by Norma Correa (PUCP), Ajoy Datta (On Think Tanks) and Dmytro Khutkyy (OTT Fellow, Fulbright alumni, RPR) (BOARD ROOM)
    • The roles that think tanks play today are changing – sometimes driven by new types of thinktankers and others in response to changes in their contexts. Regardless, the future demands a new mix of skills and a new mix of profiles.+
  • “On research excellence” convened by Shannon Sutton (IDRC) and Marjorie Alain (Partnership for Economic Policy) (LARGE ROOM 2)
    • Research encourages open inquiry and debate, empowers people with new knowledge, and broadens the array of options and solutions available to policy and practice challenges. We know we want the best research to underpin social and natural progress, but how do we know when research is of high quality? And if we can determine what quality research is made of, how can quality research be cultivated? There are no brightly painted lines for think tanks to follow. What we do know is that the predominant mechanisms for judging “research excellence” can be more problematic than productive, and there is significant room for improvement. This session will introduce the Research Quality Plus (RQ+) approach to managing and evaluating research. It will showcase how this approach has been embedded in the monitoring and evaluation systems of the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) and is being used to assess the quality of research projects from a holistic perspective. A discussion will follow, and participants will be asked to reflect on what constitutes research qualities in their context, and how their organisations are succeeding and struggling to support the qualities of research.+

1615-1645: Tea break

1645-1730: Final open session and what next for the On Think Tanks Conference and the new connections made. (LARGE ROOM 1)

7pm Goodbye drinks and reception

  • To kindle the conversation we will briefly discuss the role of women in think tanks.

Thursday 7th February: OTT Team meeting (closed meeting)

The OTT Team will meet to report on the previous year, present new projects and review 2019-2020 plans.

This is what participants said about the OTT Conference in 2018

I liked the most an exchange on the issue of think tanks working in different contexts. I especially liked the keynote speeches of Hans Gutbord and Ruth Levine and the session on new types of think tanks from foraus and Centre for London. I appreciated the chance to co-design the agenda through the online survey, along with the reading material and presentations from the conference. The long breaks were a great opportunity for networking! 

The format of the conference worked well. Participants were able to actively contribute to the discussion, and it was a balanced combination of presentations and working group discussions. The conference also offered a good networking opportunity for potential new partnerships. The organisation was perfect. 

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended. It was a pleasure and very rewarding at a personal and professional level.

Really great presentations, networking was nice, but seeing everyone going through similar things in such diverse contexts was also interesting and reassuring.

Request for support

OTT would like to request support from organisations who wish to partner so that we may be able to:

  • Support the participation of executive directors from think tanks in developing countries and researchers with a focus on think tanks. Their participation will contribute towards broadening and deepening their knowledge about new developments in the sector as well as establishing new relationships and partnerships with other participants. The participating executive directors will be able to organise a session during the OTT Conference thus informing the event’s agenda and possible efforts projects that may arise from it;
  • Support to the general costs of the conference. This contribution will help OTT share the lessons learned from the OTT Conference with a wider audience, manage the logistics involved in the organisation, cover part of the catering and support planning for the OTT Conference in 2019;
  • Specifically support our efforts to provide greater communication coverage of the conference – videos of the key-note presentations, more interviews with participants, brief notes about each session to share with a wider audience, etc.;
  • Host the participants to a networking cocktail or activity; and/or
  • Support the Conference in the long term by, for instance, providing funding, venues (including catering), communication support, etc. for future conferences.

Reading list

To help participants get in the mood we offered a reading and viewing list – developed, in part, by the 2018 participants’ own recommendations.

(Some basics)

Watch and listen

Special thank you

Special thank you is due to our main supporters (so far):


And to the various contributions made by:

  • The University of Bath
  • foraus
  • Universidad del Pacífico
  • Open Society Foundations
  • Soapbox
  • ACBF