May 2, 2017


On Think Tanks research agenda

The On Think Tanks research agenda outlines the themes, questions and lines of inquire that require further study. This agenda has been developed in collaboration with members of the team as well as our partners. It will be updated from time to time to reflect new challenges and questions as they arise.

A new research agenda on think tanks

This article is based upon a discussion and a number of follow up conversations with participants at the first annual On Think Tanks Conference.+ Discussants included members of the OTT team, representatives of international donors, academics who study think tanks, as well as current and former think tank staff. The conversation started with a discussion of the existing academic research about think tanks which led to the development of five key research priorities.

The research landscape today

Think tanks are now a well-established topic for scholarly investigation.+ All research about think tanks is concerned with the ideas they produce and propagate and their relation to the political sphere. However, researchers have focused on the political activities of these organisations.

The existing research on think tanks broadly falls into one of the following specialisms:

  1. Historical studies of a particular polity’s think tank tradition (such as by Stone & Denham) – and this mainly focuses on the usual developed countries like the USA, UK, and Western Europe;
  2. Attempts to classify these diverse organisations;
  3. Understanding a think tank’s role and impact on party politics and their role propagating the ideology of a certain clique within a party;
  4. Studies of think tanks in specific policy domains or within policy debates;
  5. The potential for think tanks to enable knowledge brokerage and ‘rational’ policy making;
  6. Academics within the tradition of power structure research+ and investigative social science have focused on how certain think tanks act as ideological shock troops and sock puppets or cooperate stooges across a number of policy domains; and
  7. New, specifically sociological, research has taken an interest in the ideas created by think tanks. This research also focuses on think tank researchers as representing a distinct mode of intellectual engagement and what the rise of these organisations might mean for the role of critical academic social science in the public sphere.

Our research priorities

Reflecting on the established literature, the group identified the following priorities:

  1. Expand and deepen

The wider research was viewed as important and insightful but needs to broaden its scope. The group raised two specific avenues for future research:

  • Studies about the impact of think tanks and the mapping of national traditions should focus on the developing world and more authoritarian polities; and
  • Critical and investigative research is an ongoing endeavour and a vital resource for those within the think tank/public policy community and the general public. Researchers in this field should seek to engage with the wider think tank community rather than single think tank studies.
  1. Think tanks in a time of populism and evidence scepticism

Reflecting the shifting international political landscape, participants suggested that there are urgent questions regarding how think tanks work and seek to influence within a more hostile political environment (typified by the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the growing populism in Europe). It was suggested research should investigate how:

  • Governments and political parties use the new populism to delegitimise think tanks (and other NGOs) which seek to influence and encourage open political debate; and
  • Think tanks respond to devaluing of evidence and whether this favours the more openly ideological and advocacy focused over the academic and technocratic organisations.
  1. Sustainability

Interest in think tank research should also pay attention to new forms of organisation, funding models and efforts to ensure their sustainability (and that of the policy research community). Questions could consider:

  • How could think tanks in developing countries mobilise new funders and supporters, public and private, to reduce their dependence on foreign aid; and how they might have to adapt their business models and internal practices to do so;
  • New funders bring new challenges: how can think tanks protect their integrity and reputation as they explore new funding sources and deal with stronger interests? What approaches, systems and tools are there for them to use?
  • The emergence of new business models for policy research to address the various challenges think tanks face (e.g. funding, staffing, the cost of research, influence, political uncertainty, etc.); and
  • What kind of interventions would be necessary to ensure think tanks (and other policy research institutions) are able to draw from a strong and growing community of researchers, communicators and managers in the long term in their communities?
  1. Quality and credibility

Researchers should engage with issues of research practice within think tanks and especially issues of research quality. Rather than denouncing the quality of think tank research, the group suggested more work is needed to understand how certain research practices and activities become the norm within think tanks. Specifically, it was suggested that:

  • More should be done to elucidate the manner in which ideas are produced and how interests (be they political, academic, corporate, and so on) are negotiated in the process of research.
  • Questions might focus upon how research from a think tank becomes valued and how it is validated (both within an organisation and outside), how perceptions of rigor/credibility differ within a think tank ecology.
  1. Changing organisations

The fifth priority relates to the tendency for think tank research to focus on ‘snap shots’ of action or by focusing on very specific policy and political events. This has missed out wider questions about how and why think tanks change. We are keen to see research which addresses how think tanks respond to new funding environments, new methods or policy issues. How do they claim credibility once things have changed?  To answer these questions would suggest moving away from historical studies towards more longitudinal research which charts think tank communities, or individual organisations, over time.

  1. Towards an anthropology of think tanks

Alongside the interest in new topics, the group also suggested that researchers should consider new types of studies and methods. There was a general interest in the use of embedded participant observations and ethnographic work. The group saw value in understanding the minutia of life within policy research organisations, and the cultures which these facilitate and sustain.

Finally, we remain interested in addressing On Think Tanks’ core themes.

Join the effort

On Think Tanks has launched a new Working Paper Series. We are calling on researchers to submit papers addressing these (or other) issues. Every month we will identify at least one paper to support and publish.

Our support includes peer review, editing, publication and dissemination.

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