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Opinion For think tanks, it’s either innovate or die

People type on desktop computer keyboards. (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Each week, 
In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about challenges facing think tanks.

James G. McGann, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer of International Studies at the Lauder Institute and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Beginning in the 1970s, public policy research institutions experienced explosive growth — today there are over 6,500 think tanks worldwide, with representation in virtually every country. The boom was driven and defined by globalization, the growth of civil society, an increasing complexity of policy issues and new demands for timely and concise analysis. In recent years, however, the surge has died down and the pace of think tank establishment has slowed. Now, think tanks face extinction unless they learn to innovate and adapt to a rapidly changing political economy.

While many factors have contributed to their decline, a shortage of money and the growth of an information-rich environment are arguably the most influential. Limited private and public funding for think tanks has resulted in more short-term, project-specific funding, rather than long term institutional support. Think tanks also face competition from advocacy organizations, for-profit consulting groups, law firms and electronic media for the attention of busy policymakers and an increasingly distracted public. In today’s environment anyone can be a think tank, at least virtually.

Traditional measures of impact and policy research are less relevant than ever, and the best mediums for reaching policymakers and the public are in a constant state of flux. This poses an existential challenge for think tanks — but also an incredible opportunity to increase the quality of their output and their ability to reach a larger audience.

[Other perspectives: Are think tanks obsolete?]

Policymakers still require reliable, accessible and useful information on the mechanics of current policies and on the costs and consequences of possible alternatives. These needs have long been central to government decision-making, but now, more than ever, the forces of globalization require analytical insight to bridge the gap between research and actually implementing policy solutions.

Think tanks, however, still face an operating environment that is full of tensions and disruptions. To successfully navigate it, they must understand the threats and opportunities facing all knowledge-based organizations and adapt to meet the market’s new demands.

First, research must be timely and accessible in order to effectively engage policymakers, the media and the public. Gone are the days when a think tank could operate with the motto “research it, write it and they will find it” — publishing a white paper and assuming that an influential policymaker would come across it eventually. To have meaningful effect, think tanks must place relevant analysis in the right hands, in the right format, at the right time. This means strategic use of Facebook, linkedin, infographics, and video briefs to communicate information and analysis on key policy issues. Policymakers read an average of thirty minutes a day, and they are not reading books or journals. A think tank’s objective should be to capture their attention so they direct their staff to read the 300-page book or report.

Second, think tanks must adapt to the growing demand for rapid data and analysis. Our era of constant connectivity brings with it a perpetual flood of information — from television to the blogosphere, from political advocacy to social media campaigns. Think tanks must be nimble enough to adjust to the acceleration and information avalanches that technical change will bring about.

Ultimately, think tanks must respond to this changing environment by collaborating and innovating. They must develop national, regional and international partnerships, and create new platforms to reach citizens, firms and policymakers with their insights. In a marketplace of ideas where everything is global, innovations, insights and influence can only be realized through strategic knowledge partnerships.

With their rigorous and innovative perspectives on issues and trends, think tanks contribute evidence and quality information to help tame policy tsunamis sweeping the globe. They are uniquely positioned and skilled to critically assess the good, bad, ugly and potentially dangerous ideas and opinions that flood the Internet and airwaves every day. Increasingly, policymakers are turning to think tanks they know and trust to validate their positions on key policy issues, to check facts and sort through the flood of conflicting opinions and information that crosses their desks each day.

To preserve their future, think tanks will need to adopt entrepreneurial and tech-savvy communication strategies while continuing to produce rigorous, policy relevant analysis. With a 21st-century approach, think tanks will survive and thrive for years to come. Without it, they may go the way of the eight-track.

Explore these other perspectives:

Amanda Bennett: Are think tanks obsolete?

Jane Harman: Are think tanks too partisan?

Jessica Mathews: Why think tanks should embrace ‘new media’

Ellen Laipson: Why our demand for instant results hurts think tanks