Financiers want to direct research
Av Mats Wiklund
Think tanks are expanding and have ever larger budgets, but lobbying and special interests always weigh heavier. So says Andrew Rich, Professor of Political Science at City College of New York and an expert on think tanks.
The concept of the think tank is elastic. Some maintain a strict independence; others are purely ideological. Some like to collaborate with the state; others shun it. Some occupy a niche; others are generalist. Some allow research and facts to speak; for others, ideas and principles are crucial.
Even if lobbyists work for special interests, and grassroots organisations base their work on member activism, the difference between them and think tanks is diffuse. Political and financial independence and the connection to research, the two factors that make their position special, are far from self-evident lines of demarcation.
In practice, the boundaries are fluid. Lobbyists and grassroots organisations provide politicians with advice and information based on facts. Think tanks of a more ideological kind, with their closeness to politicians, are closer to lobbying.
"This is because of our political system, which is porous and difficult to control. No player can dominate the political agenda, and this means that the market for think tanks is greater than in other countries. But sometimes there is the problem that certain politicians and their staff don’t distinguish between think tanks and lobbyists."
But the think tanks are finding it more difficult to make themselves heard. They are competing for attention for their ideas and research with short-term, interest-based solutions.
Andrew Rich, Professor of Political Science at City College of New York, speaks with a certain authority. His book Think Tanks, Public Policy, and the Politics of Expertise (2006) is a standard work on the importance and influence of think tanks in American politics. When asked the question of how great an influence think tanks really have, he hesitates before answering.
"The influence can be achieved in different ways. The Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute put their trust primarily in their own research, while the Heritage Foundation concentrates on producing briefs and providing the debate with ideological ammunition. Moreover, the influence varies from issue to issue. And we have a very large number of different kinds of think tanks."
They also seem to have the future ahead of them. An article in The New York Times (30/1 /2008) begins by stating that "the economy may be struggling, but Washington’s ideas industry is working flat out." (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/30/washington/30tank.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=bumiller&st=nyt&oref=slogin). The Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations and the United States Institute for Peace are expanding in attracting more funds. They are not alone. The highest ranked think tanks, Liberal, Conservative or neutral, have all acquired bigger budgets.
And as The New York Times notes, they are providing the presidential candidates with advice and workers. Hillary Clinton is being given expert help by the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. Barack Obama is also listening to the Brookings Institution but at the same time to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whilst John McCain turns to the American Enterprise Institution.
In the article, it is noted that some drawbacks come with the money. Major donors want to direct the aim and content of the research. There is also a risk that, because of influence from moneyed interests, the research will be limited and lose some of its quality.
In this election year, there is reason to scrutinise the ideological think tanks in particular, says Andrew Rich. He distinguishes between different attitudes among Democrats and Republicans.
"The progressive, liberal elite is divided. Some of them feel the think tanks should play a decisive role in influencing politicians, while others prefer organisation and grassroots activism. Both views may, of course, be relevant, but these two factions often distrust each other deeply. Another difference is that conservative think tanks concentrate on putting forward ideas, whilst liberal think tanks are, generally speaking, pre-occupied with getting Democrats to win elections.
The glory days of the think tanks began in the 1980s, when they multiplied in number, most of them Conservative. Today there are some 240 think tanks with a national agenda in Washington. Rich’s assessment is that their growth has levelled out, and that their influence is waning.
But, I object, one easily gets the opposite impression from The New York Times. "The think tanks nevertheless work in a difficult environment. This is a result, firstly, of the fact that they have grown in number. A large number of experts are competing with each other in a limited market with a limited number of tasks. Secondly, the think tanks are only one of many players. On the other hand, money is playing an ever-increasing role in politics generally speaking.
Lobbying is further strengthening its position.
"Those think tanks connected to research where academics dominate are often called "universities without students". Yet, although they are considerably more influential than the universities, they are ignored by the scientific world. Andrew Rich has two explanations.
"Research in the social sciences is often completely theoretical, with little relevance to the public debate. And, as far as I know, there are only a few examples of collaboration between think tanks and universities in the social sciences."
Translated by Phil Holmes