Think Tanks Research Paper

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The term ‘think tank’ originated in the USA during World War II. It was used to describe secure and ‘sealed environments’ for expert strategists preoccupied with military planning (Day 1993). Subsequently, the term was applied to the RAND Corporation (initially a division of the US Airforce). By the 1960s, the term was entrenched in the lexicon and was being applied to independent research institutes throughout the English-speaking world, including bodies created much earlier in the century. Consequently, social science characterization of think tanks has been shaped by Anglo-American experience.

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The proliferation of think tanks has been most pronounced in the USA, where generous foundation and corporate support, as well as government-contract research opportunities has been a boost to their development. Additionally, the constitutional architecture, federal structure, and relatively weak party system provided a conducive environment for think tanks to engage in policy debates and interact with government. At least 1200 think tanks have emerged in the USA since 1945 (Hellebust 1997). The stronger party systems, corporatist modes of decision making, strong, and relatively closed bureaucracies, and some- times weak philanthropic sectors are often said to have dampened think-tank development in the parliamentary systems of Great Britain, its former dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and most of Western Europe. Nevertheless, think tanks were present in these systems throughout the last century, with around 100 based in Britain and smaller numbers elsewhere.

Research institutes and think tanks are relatively autonomous organizations engaged in the research and analysis of contemporary issues independently of government, political parties, and pressure groups. They are relatively autonomous, although they are often in resource-dependent relationships with these organizations, funding may come from government sources, but institutes attempt to maintain their research freedom and usually claim not to be beholden to specific interests. Think tanks attempt to influence or inform policy through intellectual argument and analysis rather than direct lobbying; they are engaged in the intellectual analysis of policy issues and are concerned with the ideas and concepts that underpin policy, although not all their research and activity need be policy relevant. Think thanks collect, synthesize and create a range of information products, often directed towards a political or bureaucratic audience, but also for the benefit of the media, civil society groups, and the general public. They are concerned with knowledge creation just as much as political communication and the effective application of knowledge.

Think tanks defy exact definition. They vary considerably in size, legal form, policy ambit, longevity, organizational structure, standards of inquiry, and political significance. Not only is there considerable scholarly difference over how to identify these organizations, but also the directors and senior scholars of these organizations often make fine distinctions between ‘research institute’ and ‘think tank.’ Such disputes usually revolve around the role of advocacy on the one hand, and organizational capacity for quality policy research on the other, with think tanks deemed to do the former and institutes the latter. Often this distinction is false.

Some organizations claim to adopt a ‘scientific’ or technical approach to social and economic problems; others are overtly partisan or ideologically motivated. While some institutes are routinely engaged in intellectual brokerage and the marketing of ideas, whether in simplified policy-relevant form or in soundbites for the media, others are more academic. Many institutes are discipline based—economic policy think tanks, foreign policy institutes, social policy units, etc. Specialization is a contemporary phenomenon. There are environmental think tanks, regionally focused operations, and those that reflect the communal interests of ethnic groups. While most display a high level of social-scientific expertise or familiarity with governmental structures and processes, and usually with international politics, there is considerable diversity in style and output of think tanks. The ‘ink tank’ can be poised against the ‘think-and-do tank.’ In other words, there are significant differences between think tanks that are scholarly in focus and geared towards publication of books and reports, and think tanks that are more activist and engage in grass-roots activity.

The Western view that a think tank requires independence or autonomy from the state, corporate, or other interests in order to be free-thinking does not accord with experiences in other cultures. In many countries, the line between policy intellectuals and the state is blurred to such an extent that to talk of independence as a defining characteristic of think tanks makes little sense. Many organizations now called think tanks operate within government; this is evident in countries such as the People’s Republic of China. Some institutes have been founded or incubated in government and subsequently made independent; it is not unusual to find institutes with political patrons or formal links to political parties. Many of the German foundations, for instance, have been established by political parties or have strong ties to the Lander, and some German institutes have grown to such a large size that they rival some of the major American institutes. In other circumstances research institutes are attached to corporations, as is evident in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Notwithstanding funding dependence or political affiliation, high-quality research and analysis along with critical advice is feasible.

Accordingly, financial independence can be construed as developing an endowment or having numerous sponsors and a diverse funding base, so that an organization is not dependent on any one benefactor. Scholarly independence is reliant upon certain practices within an institute: the processes of peer review and a commitment to open inquiry rather than directed research. Legal or administrative independence comes from constitution as a private organization. Administrative and financial independence may be a facade under authoritarian or illiberal regimes where censorship and control prevail. Alternatively, some institutes may exhibit a high degree of research freedom despite being found within the state architecture. Appreciation of the political culture of a nation is essential to interpreting think tank independence and intellectual leverage.

A further problem of definition is that it is often difficult to establish a precise distinction between think tanks and other organizations with similar objectives; for example, operating foundations. Think tanks could also be regarded as more intellectual variants of pressure groups of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) since many now base their arguments on relatively sophisticated research that is sometimes conducted in-house. Nevertheless, there are important differences: think tanks do not engage in public demonstrations and they tend to address multiple policy areas (notwithstanding specialization) rather than focus on a single issue as do many pressure groups. There are similarities with consultancy firms, financial institutions, or legal offices that provide contract research and analysis, although these organizations engage in a wider range of activity than research; yet many think tanks only survive through their consultancy services and contract research.

Some think tanks have been described as ‘universities without students’ (Weaver 1989, p. 564); while the relationship between think tanks and universities has been close in most political systems, important differences are usually observed, for example, think tanks are not normally degree-granting institutions. There are a few exceptions, however, notably RAND in the USA and FLACSO in Latin America. In terms of future think-tank development, the blurring of boundaries and the overlap of objectives and activities between institutes and other organizations in society may mean that these organizations lose organizational distinctiveness.

In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the number of think tanks has proliferated. Countries where think tanks were already present such as the USA, Britain, Sweden, Canada, Japan, Austria, and Germany witnessed further organizational growth. Increased competition in the think-tank industry has often encouraged policy advocacy and the politicization of institutes, most particularly in the USA. The Heritage Foundation is usually cited as the exemplar. Elsewhere, democratic consolidation, economic development, and greater prospects of political stability in Latin America and Asia provided fertile conditions for think-tank development. The demise of the Soviet Union also opened political spaces for policy entrepreneurs. The think-tank model has been exported around the world. The term ‘think tank’ has been adopted in its English wording, with all its cultural connotations (Krastev 2000). The global think tank boom development has been prompted by foundations, corporations, and other nonstate actors demanding high-quality research, policy analysis, and ideological argumentation on the one hand, but, on the other, by grants and other funding from governments and international organizations seeking to extend policy-analytic capacities, aid civil society development, or promote human capital development.

Beyond the nation-state, there are strong signs of think-tank adaptation and evolution. The activities of international organizations such as the United Nations agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization have drawn think tanks into their ambit. The European Community provides yet another institutional forum for think-tank activity with the emergence of EU-wide think tanks disengaged from specific national identities. Furthermore, with the revolution in information and communication technology, the possibilities for policy research disconnected from specific organizational settings has become increasingly feasible and fashionable. It has also made international research exchange and collaboration between think tanks commonplace. Global and regional think-tank networks have become extensive.

In tandem with this extensive organizational growth, scholarly interest has expanded. Where discussion of think tanks was once limited almost exclusively to Anglo-American systems (see inter alia, Weaver 1989, Stone 1996, Smith 1991), interest has expanded to other OECD nations. Wider disciplinary interest has resulted from a core of scholars interested in comparative politics (Thunert 2000) and public policy to include international relations and security studies specialists as well as a greater array of anthropologists, economists, and sociologists writing in this field. Current research trends are increasingly focused on think-tank development in the developing world (McGann and Weaver 2000) and postcommunist transition countries (Krastev 2000). Think-tank transnationalization is likely to be a field of future research given the impact of globalization and regionalization on institute research agendas and activities.

Analysis of think tanks has diverged into two branches. Those focused on the organizational form such as Weaver (1989), with McGann and Weaver (2000) and James Smith (1991), were interested in explaining why and how think tanks have emerged and why some think tanks are influential. They distinguished independent public-policy institutes from academic research centers, government research units, or lobbyists. They focused on the organizational ingredients of what makes a think tank successful, how think tanks are managed, who funds them, who quotes them, and whom they try to influence. Writers in the second branch analyzed think tanks as a vehicle for broader questions about the policy process and the role of ideas and expertise in decision making. Writers such as Diane Stone (1996), Ivan Krastev (2000), and Martin Thunert (2000) employed network concepts such as ‘policy community,’ ‘advocacy coalitions,’ and ‘epistemic communities’ to explain why ideas matter. It cuts to a central issue in the study of think tanks—policy influence.

Notwithstanding extensive growth, think tanks do not enjoy automatic political access or unhindered bureaucratic routes to decision makers. Think tanks need to have some kind of engagement with government if they are to have policy relevance; however, their desire to preserve intellectual autonomy means that most think tanks try to strike a delicate balance between dependence on government and isolation from it. Conducting policy-relevant research and attempting to broker it to decision makers does not equate with policy influence. This conundrum has been the major methodological problem in the study of think tanks.

Proof of influence is elusive. There is no clear causal nexus between policy research or an idea espoused by an institute, and political decisions and policy change. It is a rare occurrence that a policy outcome can be attributed to one organization, as there are other intermediary forces; political parties, interests, and the media also shape the content and reception of ideas. Furthermore, the cognitive order of politicians and bureaucrats cannot be accessed by ‘think-tanks’ researchers, and interviewing has its own problems of faded memories and selective recall in establishing the veracity of perceptions of think-tank policy input. This hiatus is compounded in that the political stature of many institutes waxes and wanes over time, and that the criteria by which influence is assessed vary not only across think tanks but within the social sciences in general.

Nevertheless, there are many countries where overstretched bureaucracies and limited capacities for in-house governmental policy analysis provide the opportunity for think tanks to serve government needs; however, the degree of incorporation and cooption varies from think tank to think tank, and from one country to another. Latin American institutes, particularly the liberal institutes, were often marginal to the political system until the demise of authoritarian regimes. By contrast, a group of elite think tanks in Southeast Asia have enjoyed a much closer relationship with their governments where the trade-off was accommodation with government concerns and controls. A large number of neoliberal or free-market research institutes eschew government funding. The organizational choices made by think tanks about their relationship to centers of power and authority must be understood by reference not only to the ideological disposition or mission of the think tank, but also by acknowledging environmental conditions such as legal and economic constraints of the political culture in which they are located.

Outside the political sphere and state sector, think tanks have cultivated other audiences. Students and academics in colleges and universities regularly use think-tank publications. Foundation officials, business executives, bureaucrats from various international organizations, university researchers, journalists, and, for want of a better term, the ‘educated public’ are often engaged by think-tank pursuits. Similarly, third-sector intellectuals such as are found among trade unionists, religious spokespeople, NGO leaders, and social-movement activists can be attracted by the intellectual and ideological sustenance to be found in the think-tank community. Furthermore, think tanks provide an organizational link and communication bridge between their different audiences. They connect disparate groups by providing a forum for the exchange of views, by translating academic or scientific research into policy relevant publications, and by spreading policy lessons internationally.


  1. Day A J 1993 Think Tanks: An International Directory. Longman, Harlow, UK
  2. Hellebust L 1996 Think Tank Directory: A Guide to Nonprofit Public Policy Research Organizations. Government Research Service, Topeka, KS
  3. Krastev I 2000 Post-communist think tanks: making and faking influence. In: Stone D (ed.) Banking on Knowledge: The Genesis of the Global Development Network. Routledge, New York
  4. McGann J, Weaver R K (eds.) 2000 Think Tanks and Civil Societies: Catalysts for Ideas and Action. Transaction Press, Sommerset, NJ
  5. Smith J A 1991 The Idea Brokers: Think Tanks and the Rise of the New Policy Elite. Free Press, New York
  6. Stone D 1996 Capturing the Political Imagination: Think Tanks and the Policy Process. Cass, London
  7. Thunert M 2000 Players beyond borders? German think tanks as catalysts of internationalization. Global Society 14: 191–211
  8. Weaver R K 1989 The changing world of think tanks. PS: Political Science and Politics 563–78
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