September 12, 2014

U.S. Capitol

What effect to think tanks have on public policy? Credit: Adam Fagen / Flickr Creative Commons

Secretive, outside organizations whose ideas shape the government – no, this isn’t the start of a Tom Clancy novel. It's the way that many of us think of think tanks, which often help formulate policies that affect all Americans.

A graph from The Economist shows where think tanks cluster throughout the world. Credit: http://www.economist.com/node/12923343

American think tanks, which have been around for over 100 years, started with good intentions, according to Andrew Selee, executive vice president of the Wilson Center and author of What Should Think Tanks Do?: A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact
 
“The Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, the older American think tanks, really started as this idea that we could improve the way government runs by having people sitting and thinking about better ideas on how to do things.”
 
In fact, many policies that are coined “presidential” originated in think tanks - but not always the ones you’d expect.
 
“A lot of things in Obamacare, for example, or in welfare reform under Clinton, were ideas that were discussed at think tanks and actually in both cases, at more conservative think tanks originally, and were eventually taken by the White House,” says Selee.
 
Additionally, many think tanks conduct non-partisan studies that can clear the way for public and private support.
 
The Center for Global Development did a study with Harvard University to incentivize vaccine development for the developing world. They got governments to step in and say they would buy the vaccines if they were produced. This laid the groundwork “to get private companies to make the commitment to the investment.”
 
Healthcare and poverty prevention are worthy projects, but in any area where sources of funding don’t have to be disclosed, questions of bias arise. Indeed, a recent New York Times report on foreign governments buying influence is shedding new light on think tanks’ funding sources. Do funders benefit directly from well-publicized studies and recommendations?
 
“Generally speaking, in my experience, I would say I’ve seen very few studies that were bought and paid for by a business or trade association,” says Seele, “but to be honest, I think not all think tanks are equally transparent in disclosing the resources that they have and that’s a big issue."
 
What Seele sees more of is a “coincidence of interest.” This occurs when a think tank has an existing set of opinions and perspectives that a certain business finds interesting, and so the business comes to the think tank and funds it to do research. “It’s less about them shaping the results than finding an organization that’s already producing the research that they want to see out there.”   
 
But what about a super-rich investor, like Pete Peterson, who actually creates a think tank to research what he thinks is important?
 
While ideas are powerful, says Selee, “I’m guessing that there are very few think tanks out there, at least influential ones, that are owned by single plutocrats, or even a small group.”
 
In many ways, the ideals that think tanks were founded on over 100 years ago still exist today.
 
“Sometimes the patient work of bringing people together, doing research, coming up with ideas, that are not necessarily exciting or going to make it onto the 24-hour news cycle, is incredibly valuable.”

Business, think tanks, Wilson Center, public policy, government, Andrew Selee

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