T hey are everywhere.
Almost every state capital has at least one; Washington has dozens. No one knows exactly how many exist. Modest estimates put the number at more than 300 now operating in the United States, employing thousands of people. The rest of the world doesn’t have quite as many - yet.
More and more public officials seem to have spent time in one of them. It is difficult to watch a national television newscast without seeing a representative of one of these groups - particularly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It is impossible to read a major newspaper or magazine - including this one -without seeing an article or a comment they have contributed. They publish books, briefing papers and newsletters. They all seem to have Web sites, pumping information to every corner of cyberspace.
They are think tanks.
Donald E. Abelson of the University of Western Ontario offers a one-sentence definition of think tanks. He writes that think tanks are: “nonprofit, non-partisan - which does not mean non-ideological -research-oriented institutes among whose primary objectives are to influence public opinion and public policy.” Abelson’s definition aside, you may still wonder, “What do think tanks really do?” Few institutions have spread so widely in public life while remaining so mysterious to most Americans. Some pundits call think tanks the “fifth estate”--competing with the executive branch, the legislatures, the courts and the media for influence on U.S. public policy. And yet few people understand why think tanks are created, where and how they exert their supposed influence, and by what means they
Think tanks do have some common history and a few common features.
According to the “World Directory of Think Tanks” ---- a very unique resource compiled in Japan ----the oldest continuously operating think tank is the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, founded in 1831 in Britain by the Duke of Wellington. The Russell Sage Foundation - focused on the social sciences - and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - dedicated to global issues - arose in the early 20th century from two of America’s industrial fortunes. The Washington-based Brookings Institution is the oldest independent think tank in the United States. It dates back to 1916 and has tackled policy issues ranging from health care to public housing to arms control.
None of these traditional groups called itself a “think tank” when it was founded. The term was first applied in the 1940s to a group that became the RAND Corp., still the most widely recognized name among think tanks. RAND was the brain-child of H.H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Arnold was concerned that the wartime concentration of talent from the military, government, industry and the universities would dissipate in peacetime, leaving the country unprepared for future challenges.
“Scientific planning must be years in advance of the actual research and develop-ment work,” Arnold wrote to the secretary of war. RAND’s first report in 1946 lived up to that demand for forward-looking analysis. More than a decade before Sputnik, the report was titled “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World- Circling Spaceship.” RAND depended heavily on Air Force and other Pentagon contracts in its early decades, but since 1948, it has operated as a private, nonprofit organization.
The quality of being linked to - but separate from -agencies and leaders of government is RAND’s most influential innovation on think tanks that came later. University scholars tend to concern themselves with the development of theory and with other forms of “basic research,” which may or may not lead to practical innovations. Government officials, for their part, tend to be consumed by the crises of the moment. Think tanks fill the gap. They deal with real-world problems but, ideally, they help prevent crises by anticipating opportunities and threats that may not be visible to those consumed by the day-to-day responsibilities of government.
The majority of U.S. think tanks are, like RAND, set up as nonprofit organizations, similar to charities and churches. This status allows them to accept tax-deductible donations and avoid paying taxes themselves. In return, nonprofit think tanks must operate in the public interest. All reports and other products must be publicly available, with the exception of classified material prepared for government agencies. They can put policy proposals into circulation but cannot engage in any partisan political activity or support specific pieces of legislation. They can accept money from corporations and business interests but not in exchange for any work that is exclusive to the donor - which is why private companies looking for analyses of their own business
prospects usually turn to for-profit consulting firms.
Roles and Revenues.
Beyond these few legal similarities, think tanks diverge widely, beginning with
their informal roles. Large think tanks, for example, often serve as “retirement homes” for former high-ranking government officials, providing places where VIPs can hold court and stay in the game in exchange for helping the organization attract large donations. Especially in Washington, think tanks also serve as “waiting rooms” for people who still aspire to public office but whose political party is currently out of power. And think tanks certainly act as “back rooms” for some elected officials, providing advice and research that extends the capacity of a politician’s own paid staff.
Washington possesses the highest concentration of think tanks. However, growing regional diversity and the prospect of launching a hot new policy idea in one of America’s 50 state “laboratories” has led to extensive think-tank activity throughout the country. For example, the so-called “welfare-to-work” reforms eventually adopted as federal policy by the Clinton administration - which eliminate cash entitlements in favor of efforts to move people into paying jobs - began as state- level experiments.
Think tanks helped to design the experiments and to spread the word about successful results. A tiny number of think tanks have annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars and staffs of hundreds, but the averages are much smaller. Fax machines, at first, and now the Internet have allowed even two- or three-person groups of thinkers to spread their ideas to wide audiences with relatively small investments.
As technology encouraged the proliferation of think tanks in the 1980s and 1990s, another significant change occurred. Rather than attempting to carry out purely objective analyses, increasing numbers of think tanks claimed distinct ideological perspectives - more often conservative. At the state level, think tanks basing their recommendations on free markets, individual responsibility and traditional values emerged at three times the rate of liberal think tanks through the mid-1990s.
The Internet and even some academic articles on public policy are full of dark ramblings about right-wing think tanks, suggesting that they are part of a well--funded conspiracy. But the truth is much simpler. Looking at university faculties and the mainstream media in the late 20th century, conservatives saw themselves as hopelessly out-manned in the battle of ideas and doubted they would be allowed to join the ranks of existing organizations in large numbers. They seized upon think tanks as an alternative.
Washington’s Heritage Foundation set the standard for conservatives trying to use think tanks to regain influence on public policy. Founded in 1973, Heritage did three things exceptionally well. First, it mobilized conservative donors from throughout the United States, including Joe Coors of the Colorado brewing family, who contributed millions from his personal fortune while recruiting many other supporters. Second, rather than firing off its ideas randomly, Heritage concentrated its influence on Congress, where the impact of some decisions lasts for generations. Finally, Heritage communicated its recommendations in crisp articles and briefing papers rather than in weighty books that few people would read.
By 1985, according to The New Republic - a liberal magazine - Heritage had become “the most important think tank in the nation’s capital.” Arming the Reagan administration and conservatives in Congress with proposals, challenging court rulings, and using the media to build grassroots support for its ideas, Heritage took on that “fifth estate” role that either cheered or angered the people watching its progress —-depending on their own ideological persuasions, of course.
Products of Freedom
Success has many imitators, so it is no coincidence that the Heritage model hasbeen widely imitated - increasingly by liberal as well as conservative groups with all manner of particular agendas. A geographic and/or an issue-based niche that attracts donors, strong relationships with policymakers and an aggressive communications strategy are now the core elements of almost every new think tank’s “business plan.”
Large, university-style research organizations existed in a handful of other countries even before RAND, but the modern think tank is a quintessentially American creature. Think tanks are the products of freedom. They depend on free expression and the free market, and like most products of freedom - think of U.S. churches - they are prolific, contentious and highly diverse.
It is encouraging that the think-tank model - so tied to freedom - has been successfully exported to many parts of the world in recent years, especially after the collapse of communism. U.S. foundations such as Pew Charitable Trusts and the German Marshall Fund of the United States invested millions in seeding new think tanks in post-communist Europe and supporting their scholars.
Some of the most heartening stories about the impact of think tanks now come from places where they did not exist 20 years ago. For example, Ivan Krastev, the 40-year -old chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, credits think tanks in his country and elsewhere in Eastern Europe with preserving core principles of the free market and democracy during the difficult years of transition away from one-party rule.
“In contrast to the intellectuals, who have pandered to popular public opinion and have never managed to overcome their hostility toward government, think tanks have made conscious efforts to influence new legislation and government decisions,” Krastev writes.“In Central and Eastern Europe, ideas matter.”
Looking ahead, think tanks will remain a fixture of public life in most places where “ideas matter.” But these organizations are not without their difficulties and their fierce critics. If the rules of competition hold, for example, then the think-tank “market” could see some consolidation in the coming years. In the United States, the large number of conservative think tanks must compete not only with each other but also with political candidates, advocacy groups and charities for the same pool of dollars. Not all of them will survive.
Private corporations, meanwhile, are becoming more interest-driven in their support of public-policy research. Rather than endowing a range of groups as a general contribution to the public good, companies tend to support think tanks with a track record of work that matches their own policy positions. Such funding decisions are hardly surprising, but they expose some think tanks to the criticism that their work is a form of intellectual prostitution. Money spent on think tanks helps to buy respect for the self-interested positions of private companies,” writes David Callahan in The Washington Monthly. “In public policy debates, scholarly experts and data-filled reports can legitimize certain view-points far more effectively than lobbyists.” The vast majority of people who become passion ate enough about public policy to study it and explain it for a living are not about to cook the intellectual books or sacrifice their integrity on behalf of a donor. Still, consumers of think-tank reports and recommendations are always wise to understand the financial backing of groups that supply them with information.
For public policy, in the end, the best defense against excessive influence of one group is intellectual competition of another group. In today’s battle of ideas, if yours are losing, send in the tanks.
Gary L. Geipel is a speech-writer for a Fortune 500 corporation
and a senior associate of the National Institute for Public Policy,
a think tank focused on U.S. national security.
Article design: Holly K. Soria
The AMERICAN LEGION Magazine
January 2005, (pgs. 22-26)
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