Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on the rise of think tanks

Matthew Crawford's recent book Shop Class as Soul Craft has received a good deal of attention (see here, here, here, and elsewhere). Crawford, moving from a Chicago political philosophy PhD to an unfortunate stint at a think tank, now writes in critique of knowledge work that fails to account for the place of the intellect in manual work. From what I've seen of reviews, his book is a helpful reminder to a cultural fixation on certain sorts of expertise. What I'm interested in for this post, however, is think tanks, what their usefulness is, their future, and concerns about them.

Crawford's story (which he goes into in a little more detail in the last link provided above) includes employment at the George C. Marshall Institute, a DC think tank on science and public policy. Crawford characterizes his work at the Institute as very "dumbed down", he also spoke of a common tendency to "reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise." In the interview linked above, he described his job of abstracting scientific papers at a fast pace and with little oversight or concern for accuracy.

Hopefully it goes without saying that all think tanks are not the same, and that the failings of any particular one should not be projected on any others. But ambiguities remain, and they are worth pursuing. The other day I was discussing Daniel's work (he is a research associate at the Urban Institute) with a friend, and the question came up from him of what, exactly, think tanks do. Considering how influential they are on public policy, this is an important question for people to ask. Considering their rising influence in the world of "knowledge work", it is also an important question for me, from the university, to ask.

My sense is that think tanks are one of the most significant recent developments in American intellectual culture, and that we should note their rise with some amount of seriousness. In the same way that the modern German research institute swept the educational world and the post-WWII funding of research in the U.S. changed higher education dramatically, think tanks are now changing the way that we think about thinking, more decidedly in the public sphere and arguably with more extensive implications (for better and worse).

One good tendency in think tank culture is the emphasis on what might be called "interdisciplinarity", to carry over some of the categories of traditional schooling. The Marshall Institute where Crawford worked considered scientific, public policy, and military problems, presumably pooling resources and experts in all of these fields to work alongside one another and get things done. At UI where Daniel works, the general focus is on economics and social policy, but this focus is indeed quite general. Daniel has worked on everything from foster care to employment training.

This structure is similar to the (admittedly, a little wacky) op-ed that Mark Taylor wrote in the NYT earlier this year on restructuring American higher education. One suggestion he offered was to "abolish permanent departments" and work research around timely problems... he brings up the idea of a "Water program" to consider water as a resource and a theoretical problem from a number of angles. At the University of Chicago, a similar approach can be found in the Committee on Social Thought, which is highly interdisciplinary the way that many think tanks are (in fact, Crawford was a postdoctoral fellow at the Committee before his work at the Marshall Institute).

What I see as a possible danger of the new think tank culture is its very ties to multiple sources of expertise and influence. The military-industrial complex that has surfaced more prominently in the public imagination because of outcries against the Bush administration is reflected in the government-think tank complex (PNAC and AEI are commonly cited), where partisan influences determine expert recommendations, which determine policy decisions. Again, these political motivations are certainly not present in all think tanks. Karen Kwiatkowski, for instance, is a prominent critic of this trend, but I think that her arguments (at least from what I've seen in the documentary Why We Fight) can tend to be a little broad-brushed.

In the end, what is good about think tanks may also be bad about them. This is the case in any sort of institution. In the attempt to maintain legitimacy, influence and power are wielded both to the furtherance of knowledge, and sometimes to the political captivity of it. What I appreciate about think tanks is their nimble nature, their ability to adjust and appropriate the questions of today in an agile manner. They are, however, dependent upon sources of funding and the usual struggles for public relevance, and these can easily lead to a disintegration into partisanship or superficial research.

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