On Think Tanks research agenda

2 May 2017

The research landscape

Think tanks, and policy research organisations more generally, are now a well-established topic of scholarly investigation, with several books, articles and special issues devoted to their study +. An important line of research about them has focused on attempts to define, understand, and classify these organisations +, which is a murky subject+  given their various functions, models and their relationship to the context they operate in.

Another line of inquiry centres on studying a particular polity of think tank tradition in a given country or region+.These have tended to focus more on developed countries like the USA, UK, and countries in Western Europe, but in recent years studies from other parts of the world are consistently emerging.

Research on think tanks also concentrates on the ideas they produce and propagate, as well as  their relation to the political sphere. These types of studies aim to understand a think tank’s role and impact on policy and politics and their role in developing and propagating certain ideas +

A research agenda on think tanks

Within, and informed by, this landscape, On Think Tanks has developed its own research agenda, which outlines the framework that guides our knowledge inquiries. This framework enables the construction of the lines of inquiry, themes and questions that require answers to solve our main question: how (or if) research influences policy and practice, and what is the role of policy research organisations in this.

The agenda is a working document and is informed by discussions with the On Think Tanks team and associates, representatives of international donors, academics, partners, and current and former thinktankers.  The agenda is broad and aims to leave space for new questions as some issues gain or lose relevance. It is formally reviewed annually, at the Academic Session of the  On Think Tanks Conference,  to reflect new challenges and questions as they arise.

Overview of the framework

The On Think Tanks research agenda assumes that policy research organisations (think tanks and other related organisations) are a key actor in the evidence informed policy environment and places them at the centre of the agenda. But think tanks do not operate in isolation, nor have a direct and linear impact on policy and practice.  As research shows they work within a context with several other actors, and all are influenced by myriad of other issues that affect and mediate relationships.

Our research agenda thus focuses on understanding the policy influence environment, the actors that operate in it, the issues that are affect them all, and places think tanks at the centre as a key actor. To be able to understand the untangle our main question we have defined three spaces of inquiry (details below). These distinction enables us to investigate the specificities of each, but we acknowledge that the separation between them is not clear cut, and some questions and themes overlap. Nonetheless, the framework is a useful way to outline our research agenda and enables us to establish research questions within each aspect. Our agenda focuses on:

  1. The (evidence informing policy) environment. Understood as the space in which different actors engage and interact to inform policy and practice decisions, and in which decisions are made and executed. This line of inquiry aims to understand the relationship between policy research organisations and other actors, defined as the engagement and positioning of the organisations, how they engage with governments, businesses, civil society actors and position their research for policy uptake. It also entails understanding the different actors and their roles within the environment and how they interact with each other and policy research organisations. Within this line of inquiry, we will address questions such as what is the role of experts in a specific context? What are the barriers/resistance to evidence informed policy and practice? How do partisan think tanks engage with their audiences?
  2. Policy research organisations. The functioning, history and make up of policy of research organisations, within themselves and as a sector. Here we will explore questions such as: How are think tanks and policy research organisations defined? How many think tanks are there in the world, how many by region, what are their topics of focus? How do think tanks generate research? How do think tanks prepare, manage and recover from crisis? What are the roles and functions of think tanks leaders? What challenges do they face? How are leadership transitions enacted? Why do think tanks cease to function?
  3. Cross-cutting issues, that affect each actor (including policy research organisations), the wider environment and mediate the interaction between them. Within this line of inquiry we will explore issues such as: How to tackle racial, social and gender discrimination in the make-up of those who work at and lead think tanks? How partnerships between grassroots organisations and think tanks might be mutually beneficial? What it the role of transparency in generating trust? How perceptions of rigor/credibility differ within a think tank ecology.


Answering the agenda

These areas of inquiry and questions are long-standing themes where On Think Tanks has developed a critical mass of expertise—both in-house and through its expanded network of associates and partners—and where it will continue to add value.

We aim to respond to this research agenda by:

  • Undertaking in-house research
  • Commissioning research to associates and other researchers
  • Drawing on the substantive work that others have done
  • Partnering with other organisations and researchers
  • Convening a network of researchers focused on think tanks, policy research actors and organisations, and evidence informed policy more widely.


Priorities for 2020-2021

In 2020-2021 we will focus on the following issues:

  • Analysis of think tanks as a sector, using data from the Open Think Tank Directory
  • How do think tanks deal with change, operate and recover from a crisis ( linking this with our Covid-19 response)
  • Diversity, equity and representation in think tanks, specifically, gender, race and economic backgrounds

Join the effort

In partnership with the Institute of Development Studies and Universidad del Pacífico, + we publish a Working Paper Series which focuses on think tanks and evidence informed policy as well. This publication aims showcase the work of new and more established researchers and aims to be a link between an academic and a practitioner audience. We are open to paper submissions which address the issues outlined above.

If you would like to know more about On Think Tanks’ research activities, please contact Andrea Baertl at [email protected]