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.
Ellen Laipson is president emeritus and distinguished fellow at Stimson. She served as president and chief executive from 2002 to October 2015.
In our news-saturated age, information is treated as a free public good. Data are available in an instant on any variety of technological platform. In theory, think tanks are part of this new information ecosystem — their role is to provide considered judgment around new sets of data and develop a deeper understanding of enduring policy challenges.
Yet think tanks are struggling to adjust to an environment that no longer seems to value knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Today’s expectation is that they will produce only quick, pithy policy relevant analysis that applies to an immediate, urgent problem, and that they will be able to demonstrate how the application of that knowledge will have a measurable impact on a stated goal. Yet while it is important for experts to engage with today’s problems, there is significant value in the experts who look to the horizon and generate smart ideas that may not be embraced instantly but have long-term merit.
Here’s one example: In 2002, the Stimson Center’s co-founder, Michael Krepon, developed some ideas for an outer-space “code of conduct.” At the time, ambitious arms-control agreements were not in favor, but Krepon saw a security imperative in addressing long-term issues to manage an increasingly crowded strategic zone. By 2007, he had gathered nongovernmental organizations from Russia, China, France, Canada and Japan to draft an international code. The European Union worked off the Stimson draft in Geneva meetings over several years, with the encouragement of U.S. arms-control negotiators. By 2012, the United States was openly supportive, and in 2014, a United Nations group of experts issued a report on behalf of all members of the Conference on Disarmament agreeing in principle to the code of conduct (Russia and China are still not fully on board).
Early in this decade-long life cycle, the work might have been seen as one of those quixotic think-tank reports, a potential source of fresh ideas but likely destined to sit on the shelf. In today’s climate, Krepon’s work might have been seen as inessential, unrelated to a pressing issue in the news. At the 10-year mark, however, Krepon’s work was a great success, close to implementation as a new guide for space-faring nations.
[Other perspectives: Why think tanks should embrace ‘new media’]
The marketplace of ideas is a busy and often competitive place. Smart people jockey for the attention of policymakers and philanthropists. Often, a think tank’s partnerships with funders are stimulating exchanges that sharpen a project’s design and ensure that important stakeholders will help promote a study’s findings.
But think tanks also need the freedom to explore issues that are not yet in the news, to research ways to solve chronic, long-term problems or to think imaginatively about opportunities to improve our complicated world. In the long run, think tanks can be even more useful by allocating more time to the creation of broader knowledge, even without knowing when or by whom it will be used.
Explore these other perspectives: