Think Tanks in a Mid Life Crisis

Stimson Spotlight

Think Tanks in a Mid Life Crisis

Since the early 1900s, think tanks have helped develop informed policies and have been trusted as reliable sources of information and research. According to Dr. Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think tank in the U.K.,  think tanks are now losing their credibility and are increasingly seen as sources of biased and elitist information. Not attributable to a single event or cause, this transition is the result of various movements that have slowly chipped away at the credibility of think tanks. From the rise of the anti-elitist movement to the democratization of information, think tank credibility is being threatened on various fronts. Understanding the roots of think tanks as institutions and how they have changed over time can help illuminate how to counter these existential threats.

The term think tank describes a broad set of institutions that vary all over the world. Globally, there are think tanks exclusively funded by governments or by private corporations. Some thinks tanks exist in university spaces as well, as special research institutions. This article focuses on think tanks in the United States focused on foreign policy. These organizations traditionally rely on foundations for funding.

Such think tanks have always been an embodiment of a multilateral and globalized world. Some of the earliest think tanks, such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution, were founded between 1910 and 1921 by private individuals who wanted to see governments take more informed steps towards peace. In the post-World War I era, preserving peace through international collaboration became a priority, and thus, think tanks came into being as champions of the multilateral system. Think tanks serve as a bridge between academia and politics and took a scientific approach to research international political issues.

Currently, however, nationalism is increasingly more dominant in the global political arena. Right-wing politicians are gaining power for countering consensus support for multilateralism. According to the Brookings Institution’s Prasenjit Duara, there is a greater trend towards blind nationalism, one that is more skeptical towards an international order. Therefore, it’s understandable that in this era,  think tanks are threatened. They are associated with elitism and the idea that policy development has been very insular and has failed individuals on the national and global level. People see think tanks as failing to address the local issues that they daily face, and instead focus on preserving a global system that seems to work against the locals. Even though problems facing society today are more global, such as climate change and terrorism, greater skepticism towards multilateralism exists. The rise of right-wing nationalism is a unique phenomenon itself, but ultimately, it has thrived by inciting populist fears built on very real frustrations of the average citizen. Think tanks have become a target of frustration as a representation of the out-of-touch elite caste.

This threat is further exacerbated with the rise of social media. Think tank audiences used to exclusively be policy makers, since they played a unique role in the policy development process. Today, “the marketplace of ideas” has been flooded. Social media and mass media have democratized how information can be spread, meaning anyone can present themselves as an authority and become influential. Yet, this has also led to the abuse of such platforms and the spread of fake news and alternative facts. This has facilitated those with ulterior motives to create and spread fake news which we now see having an influence in national politics around the globe.

All these issues have affected funding for think tanks. American think tanks have always been dependent on foundations and governments for financial stability; however, funding has become increasingly scrutinized. Whereas in the past, think tanks received more unrestricted funds, or funds that were not tied a specific project, think tanks now receive increasingly restricted grants. Furthermore, funders are looking for measurable impact in the work they fund, and research conclusions and policy recommendations are not necessarily measurable enough. Outcome is now often measured by how many likes, shares, and retweets the ideas get to show that they resonate with the public, and therefore, are influential in the political sphere. Think tanks are stretched to have a divided focus: on the research itself, and on making the information available and accessible to the public. The latter requires an understanding how different demographics prefer their information: younger people tend to prefer their information through tweets and visualized data whereas older people tend to prefer their information in full length articles. Working on both is very relevant in adapting to changing audiences, but requires more funding. Yet, this is not always in line with how traditional funders operate.

This is not to say that think tanks will be gone in the future. Those dedicated to countering the influx of fake news and alternative facts are relying on the academic work done by think tanks to help push for sound policy. Moreover, more experimental think tanks, such as the exclusively virtual Center for Threat Awareness, have failed to serve as viable alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar think tanks.

Regardless, think tanks will have to evolve to stay relevant, and that onus falls on think tanks themselves. One way think tanks are doing this is by becoming more partisan to appeal to the average citizen, which has other ramifications. In addition, funding streams are becoming more varied, with a greater number of foreign governments and corporations investing in American think tanks. Both pathways can strain the credibility of think tanks as donations can be considered a way to influence the research outcome. Nevertheless, many think tanks are aware of these challenges and responding by making information more available to the public and being transparent with their financial statements. Operating in this time is more difficult, however, the think tanks that can adapt come out much stronger and more reliable than before. Therefore, while there are worrying trends for think tanks, it is definitely not the end.

This Spotlight was written by Saumya Shruti, a Summer 2019 intern with Stimson's Development Program.