Thursday, July 30, 2009

Think Tanks: The Lay of the Land

This is a very interesting post by Evan. I've heard a lot of good stuff about "Shop Class as Soul Craft", and I'm particularly interested in the role think tanks play in society - not just because I work at one, but because I have to interact with and react with other "think tanks" on a daily basis. Some of these interactions are positive, and some less so.

I think a lot about think tanks can be predicted based on how they're financed. In my policy think tank world, financing primarily comes from donations/endowments, private foundations, and the government. The "safest," most objective think tanks are actually those that rely largely on government funding. A lot of people may find this ironic, but it makes sense. Power in Washington shifts quite regularly, and despite the bad rap they get, the ubiquitous "bureaucracy" that manages these contracts is quite non-partisan and focused on very specific problems, which requires very specific research. Often the subject matter itself is dictated by political forces (i.e. - "home ownership" research replaced "low income housing tax credit" research during the Clinton-Bush transition), but the conclusions are not affected by changing political winds. Government contracts undergo a great deal of scrutiny - significantly more than grants from private foundations. If either the agency or the think tank involved in a contract were guilty of bias, it wouldn't take long at all for their competitors to identify that bias. These contracts also often require external panels and working groups to review the products before release to the public. Panels are usually composed of people from universities and other think tanks, and they also won't countenance a product that isn't objective.

Think tanks that operate using endowments and donations are ironically the least objective. These are organizations like the libertarian Cato, liberal Economic Policy Institute, or conservative Heritage Foundation. It's not that they produce bad analysis. They are simply more normative publications, and I feel that they regularly leave out important counter-arguments or findings. These sorts of "think tanks" are usually easy to identify because they regularly use ideological language (libertarian, "progressive", and conservative, respectively for those examples), and challenge or "call out" individual politicians. I think these groups are best thought of as advocacy groups that do research, rather than true research institutions.

A middle ground is funding by private foundations. Private foundations lie on a spectrum of ideological intensity. Usually, a think tank that is recognized as being objective isn't going to be budged by the ideological imperatives of a private foundation they get money from - and I'd say almost all of these types of grants give researchers final editorial sign off on content and conclusions.

The unfortunate thing is that the less objective a funding source is, the more interesting it is for researchers (because it usually means a freer hand). The government decides what questions get answered when they sign a contract with a think tank. Private institutes accept unsolicited proposals from think tanks, which provides somewhat greater freedom. Endowments provide complete freedom for researchers to pursue the questions they're interested in. So it's a mixed bag. I think a combination of these three funding sources is the best way to ensure that a think tank is objective, nimble, and can target research questions that are the most interesting to answer.

Think tanks have a range of missions. Some are pure government contractors - very objective, very focused and concrete, and very non-partisan. Others, like Urban, have a general goal of "understanding policies that support low income families", but because of their substantial government contracting, they approach these questions in a more or less non-partisan way. The final group, which I described above, are really just advocacy groups that publish research reports. They often employ smart people and put out interesting stuff - but I put about as much stock in them as I do other purely advocacy groups.

What's rarest is a think tank that blends practical and abstract/empirical and theoretical research the way a university department would, with considerable independence from government contract work, nevertheless maintaining a strong reputation for objectivity. That's a very hard balance to strike, and there are only a few that I think can do it. The Brookings Institution is one. The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute are others (although AEI has a much clearer ideological bent than Brookings or CFR, but I don't think they "assume their own conclusions" the way Cato, EPI, or Heritage seem to). So is the Woodrow Wilson Center (although the Wilson Center does rely on government money, my understanding is that it is direct Congressional funding, not more constraining research contracts with executive agencies). Eventually I'd love to work at one of these types of organizations - essentially a university environment without the teaching or tenure, and strong connections to policymakers without being mere contractors. The Urban Institute comes quite close to this atmosphere, so I'm satisfied. But it's still somewhat of a Brookings Institution/government contractor hybrid.

Think tanks are very important for policy-makers. Universities are simply too insular and overburdened with teaching and academic research to be the sole source of policy research. But it's very important to understand what differentiates different policy shops. Heritage is no Abt Associates, and neither of these companies are comparable to Brookings. You just have to understand the lay of the land before you believe everything you read.

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