Think Tanks

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Editors: Gary L. Anderson and Kathryn G. Herr
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Think Tanks

Think tanks are organizations that have significant autonomy from governmental interests and that synthesize, create, or disseminate information, ideas, or advice to the public, policymakers, other organizations, and the press. They range from multimillion-dollar national operations to small groups of part-time employees who work on specific issues at the local level. More than 1,000 think tanks operate in the United States.

Think tanks are a recent phenomenon in institutional knowledge production and dissemination. The first think tanks appeared at the beginning of the 1900s (e.g., Hoover Institution, 1919; Council on Foreign Relations, 1921; and Brookings Institution, 1927). More appeared in the 1940s and 1950s (e.g., American Enterprise Institute, 1943, and RAND, 1948), and they proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s (e.g., Heritage Foundation, 1973; Cato Institute, 1977; Manhattan Institute, 1978; Heartland Institute, 1984; Economic Policy Institute, 1986; Goldwater Institute, 1988; and Progressive Policy Institute, 1989).

U.S. think tanks can be categorized into three main types based on the work they do and the authority they possess: (1) contract research think tanks, (2) academic think tanks, and (3) advocacy think tanks. Contract research think tanks are private organizations that contract with other organizations, usually government agencies, to provide information in the form of original research products. Each study, program evaluation, and policy analysis they create adheres to rigorous social science methods, including the use of blind review by scientific peers. Their staffs are predominantly Ph.D.s, whose expertise and experience are in conducting original scientific research. These think tanks make their studies available to the agencies with which they contract and disseminate them to the public only to the extent that the contracting agency desires that they do so. As a result, they often put little effort into marketing their research to the general public. The RAND Corporation is the prototypical example of the contract research think tank. Although these were the original think tanks, contract research think tanks are only a small percentage of the total today.

Academic think tanks are like universities without students. They are private organizations whose main emphasis is the creation of information through original research that is relevant to current policy topics. Academic think tanks may also produce reports that synthesize existing research. In addition, these think Page 1370  |  Top of Articletanks may present policy ideas and advice based on their original research or their reports that synthesize existing research. Most often, the research and reports of academic think tanks focus on long-term, fundamental policy change. Like contract research think tanks, academic think tanks employ a large percentage of Ph.D.s whose expertise and experience are in conducting original research that adheres to rigorous social science methods, including blind review by scientific peers. Unlike contract research think tanks, academic think tanks’ funding comes mostly from private foundations that support their general research agenda, rather than contracting for specific research or reports. The Economic Policy Institute typifies the academic think tank. Approximately one third of think tanks are of this model.

Advocacy think tanks are the newest, largest, and fastest-growing think tank model. These think tanks are private organizations that emphasize the creation and dissemination of information in the form of policy ideas and advice. Their mission is to win the political war of ideas that surround policy making. Advocacy think tanks do not attempt to present neutral information; rather, they are aggressive ideological advocates for specific policies.

Advocacy think tanks mostly repackage existing research on policy issues, adding their own ideological spin in order to present their policy ideas in the best light possible. Their staffs generally have policy rather than academic credentials; that is, they have bachelor’s and master’s degrees (very few have doctorates), and many are former government bureaucrats, political appointees, and politicians. Their expertise is general, rather than specific, to the topics in which they work, and it is more often in political know-how than scientific research. Advocacy think tanks generally disseminate their information in the form of policy briefs, reports, and press releases, which are intended to influence immediate or short-term policy debates. They do not adhere to rigorous social science methods in the production of their policy products. Advocacy think tanks are expert in media relations, grassroots organizing, and influencing politicians and policymakers.

Advocacy think tanks tend to be funded by corporations, foundations, and interest groups who support their ideological agenda and desire specific policy outcomes. The conservative Heritage Foundation is generally considered to be the founder of this think tank model and the prototypical example of the clearly partisan advocacy think tank. Among advocacy think tanks, and most likely think tanks in general, conservative ones are the largest, best funded, and likely most influential. It is estimated that the entire conservative network of think tanks has spent more than one billion dollars in advocacy-related activities since 1970. This is many times more than all the progressive advocacy think tanks and all the nonadvocacy think tanks combined.

In contrast to the largely apolitical missions of the traditional contract and academic think tanks, conservative advocacy think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Goldwater Institute, the Heartland Institute, and the Family Research Council, have consciously worked to insert themselves in the politics and public debate of virtually every social policy issue from welfare to education to defense to the environment. At this, they have been very successful. Conservative advocacy think tanks are regularly cited in the media, quoted by politicians, and invited to testify before Congress and state legislators. As a group, they are credited with guiding the specific public policies of the Reagan administration, Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” and the education voucher movement; enacting particular pieces of legislation, including school voucher and choice laws, federal welfare reform, California’s Proposition 187 (immigration reform), various state tort reform laws, and Medicare Plus Choice (Medicare reform); and assisting in the election of conservative politicians.

Conservative advocacy think tanks use public relations campaigns to influence policy, not individual research studies. One or more conservative advocacy think tanks delivers a coordinated message through reports, opinion pieces in the news, newsletters, policy recommendations, and websites. This information is sent to anyone who might be interested, including the news media, politicians, government agencies, businesses, and the general public. Conservative advocacy think tanks have been using and perfecting these public relations techniques since the early 1970s.

One example of the degree of sophistication of their public relations efforts is the State Policy Network. The Page 1371  |  Top of ArticleState Policy Network is a national coalition of conservative advocacy organizations that operate in more than 40 states. It runs workshops, hosts networking events, and operates an online resource center dedicated solely to assisting conservative think tanks in marketing their policy messages. State Policy Network members include national think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute and state-level think tanks such as the Goldwater Institute and the Heartland Institute. Through this network, conservative advocacy think tanks coordinate their efforts as a means of magnifying their impact.

A significant part of the public relations campaigns of conservative advocacy think tanks is the dissemination of reports on specific policy issues. Often, these reports are packaged to resemble scientific research, like that conducted in universities and academic and contract research think tanks, even though they are not bound by tradition or professional membership to adhere to accepted guidelines of professional conduct for scientific research. As such, think tanks can present themselves as researchers and research institutions that produce and disseminate research studies regardless of how they actually conduct their activities. Studies and reports published by the conservative Manhattan Institute and the Cato Institute as research, for example, have been criticized as unsound and misleading.

Further, some conservative advocacy think tanks openly inject partisan politics into their research, arguing that research and information can never be politically neutral and expertise is always biased. With this rationale, these conservative advocacy think tanks are blurring the fine, but necessary, distinction between research that is methodologically unsound and research that is motivated by a political viewpoint. In other words, advocacy think tanks conflate commitment to a specific value system as equivalent to using poor research methods. For example, research that ignores or suppresses contrary evidence is different than research that advocates how the weight of that evidence, fully presented, should be applied to the policy issue at hand. As research, the former contains a political bias that makes it methodologically unsound, and thus, scientifically unreliable. The latter contains a political viewpoint but is methodologically sound and scientifically reliable. To the extent that rigorous research that includes a political viewpoint or results from a political agenda becomes synonymous with politically biased research, even rigorous scientific research from think tanks, and possibly all rigorous scientific research, may become tainted as unreliable propaganda, limiting their value to the policy-making process.

Conservative advocacy think tanks also support their policy ideas by promoting the careers of like-minded politicians and bureaucrats. They provide initial experience and training for young conservatives and provide lucrative positions after election defeats for defeated ones, who then continue to influence policy until their appointment in the next Republican administration. Conservatives who have been supported by advocacy think tanks include Nina Shokraii Rees, who left her position as chief education analyst at the Heritage Foundation to join the George W. Bush presidential campaign, next the office of Vice President Cheney, and then the U.S. Department of Education as an assistant deputy secretary; Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who became a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation; U.S. Representative Floyd Flake, who became a scholar at the Manhattan Institute; and Lynne Cheney, who was an education scholar at the American Enterprise Institute while Second Lady of the United States.

It appears that the growth and success the conservative advocacy think tanks have changes the degree to which all think tanks actively participate in the politics of social policy making. Traditional contract research and academic think tanks, like the centrist RAND Corporation and the progressive Economic Policy Institute, have added public relations activities to their work, including maintaining websites, making their personnel available for interviews with the news media, and holding press conferences for the release of their reports. Further, new progressive advocacy think tanks and networks are being started to counter the conservative ones. Care2, founded in 1998, is an online network of think tanks and other organizations meant to provide resources to aid those interested in progressive policies to communicate and market their ideas. In 2006, Care2 claimed to have over 6 million members. In 2000, seven professors from Page 1372  |  Top of Articlethe University of California system started the Rockridge Institute to develop progressive policy frames and to assist progressives to better formulate and disseminate their messages. In 2005, 80 wealthy Democrats pledged over one million dollars each to the Democratic Alliance. The Democratic Alliance was created to provide long-term financial support to groups developing and promoting progressive ideas and policies, including progressive advocacy think tanks. The Democratic Alliance intends to shrink the large financial and institutional advantage that conservative advocacy think tanks and organizations hold over progressive ones.

Advocacy think tanks are credited with changing how information is used in the political process. More advocacy think tanks are appearing each year across the political spectrum, and they are becoming more entrenched as an institution. Politicians and the press regularly turn to advocacy think tanks for free, user-friendly information packets and opinions that are ready for easy insertion into news pieces, congressional reports, and political press releases. Thanks in part to advocacy think tanks, there is now more information as well as ideas, opinions, and recommendations in the political and policy-making process than ever before. The information, however, is also more clearly partisan and less inherently reliable. Arguably, the U.S. political process is trading quantity for quality, which is making sound, effective policy less likely. Despite these concerns, it appears that for the short term, the number of advocacy think tanks and the amount of partisan information and opinion will continue to increase.

—Eric M. Haas

Further Readings

Abelson, D. (2002). Do think tanks matter? Assessing the impact of public policy institutes. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

McCann, J., & Weaver, R. K. (Eds.). (2002). Think tanks and civil societies: Catalysts for ideas and action. Somerset, NJ: Transaction.

Ricci, D. (1993). The transformation of American politics: The new Washington and the rise of think tanks. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rich, A. (2004). Think tanks, public policy, and the politics of expertise. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. (1991). The idea brokers: Think tanks and the rise of the new policy elite. New York: Free Press.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2660300784