Thinking about think tanks

My recent participation to the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group meeting (see my previous blog entry) as well as my earlier job in the former Bureau of European Policy Advisers triggered me to think about the relationship between science and corporate think tanks.

Wikipedia defines corporate think tanks as organizations that “perform research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture” and uses as a synonym the term “policy institute”. This is of course a very vague definition for what is arguably a very vague beast.

I am referring here to organizations like Bruegel, the European Policy Centre (EPC), the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) and the European Commission’s own European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC) at the European level or the Brookings and the Hoover Institution in the US. These organizations produce policy reports and briefs and try to influence the political agenda by providing expert knowledge and opinion. Clearly they are not “honest brokers” as defined by Pielke, but are rather a kind of institutionalized spin doctors, being at an arms length of the policy-making machinery. They mostly employ economists and political scientists, quite often also having former politicians on their pay-roll (either being parked because they lost their constituency or because they seek to be close to the political heartbeat after retirement). Their legal setup differs, though mostly they are established as foundations or similar not-for-profit entities.

The Secretary-General of the European Parliament Klaus Welle speaking at a think tank event (Source: European Parliament)
The Secretary-General of the European Parliament Klaus Welle speaking at a think tank event (Source: European Parliament)

From what I have seen after many years at the science-policy interface there seems to be a kind of love and hate relationship between corporate think tanks and the wider scientific community. In the EU, corporate think tanks are often regarded by well reputed research institutes, including economic research institutes, as organizations that are “not doing real science”. This is of course because think tanks rarely publish in peer-reviewed journals, usually do not employ natural scientists and are seen as being too close to, and partly interwoven with, politics. Compared to the allegedly pristine pureness of science in its ivory tower, corporate think tanks sometimes seem to be regarded by the research establishment as relatives you feel ashamed for at family reunions. I am convinced that there is also a lot of jealousy in this argument, given that think tanks have an access to politicians ordinary research organizations can only dream of (as can be demonstrated by Heads of State and Ministers frequently speaking at events organized by think tanks).

Interestingly, in the US this relationship seems to be a bit more relaxed. Brookings and others are considered to be respected institutions, some of them even being based on research campuses or integrated into universities, such as the Hoover Institution based at Stamford. Their reputation in the scientific community is certainly higher, thanks to a stronger embedding in or with academia, although the jealousy argument also applies certainly here.

This leads me to the question: Do we need think tanks after all? Aren’t they doing a job scientists at universities and other research institutes could also do? Well, apart from the premier access to politicians mentioned earlier, think tanks have a unique capability: they are quick and they know the political game. They know what politicians need when and how, are capable of delivering reasonably sound policy analysis at very short time frames and are able to phrase their advice in a language that is digestable for politicians and media alike. All of this is of course very appealing to politicians, especially considering that most think tanks are physically located close to government and parliament and are perfectly networked in the policy bubble. In short: politicians put a lot of trust in think tanks based on personal relationships.

Of course, the (mostly) “quick and dirty” policy analysis provided by think tanks will never be as reputed as a thorough scientific analysis published in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal (although there are exceptions and sometimes major policy reports produced by think tanks also make it into the scientific mainstream). Also, the advice given by think tanks may be tweaked towards a certain political outcome if the think tank in question has a specific political agenda, which is often the case with think tanks that are close to political parties. Still, the impact of such policy papers should not be underestimated as think tanks know how to play the political chord. A 2-page paper written by a think tank analyst within 24 hours has often more impact on policy-making than a thick assessment report written by dozens of eminent scientists over a year.

So for me the question is not whether corporate think tanks or academia should be preferred in policy advice. We need both. Therefore, I advocate here in favor of a closer collaboration between the two. Think tanks can help to get scientific messages into the ears of politicians and opinion-leading media. They also play an important role in organizing high level discussion fora that provide platforms for scientists to engage with policy, society and industry. Think tanks should thus be regarded as partners and not competitors in policy advice.

However, for this to happen trust needs to be built between both worlds. This implies that think tanks must not claim or give the impression that their advice can substitute a solid body of evidence based on peer review. They must also always acknowledge their sources when using scientific evidence for their advice. At the same token, academia should not downplay the importance of think tanks and their specific capabilities and avoid giving the impression that all the wisdom is on its side.

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