Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we focused on the difficulties facing think tanks.
Amanda Bennett started the week off by suggesting that think tanks risk obsolescence at the hands of industry and political pressures. James McGann reinforced that idea, arguing that think tanks will need to innovate to remain relevant. Still, this era of information saturation presents other challenges for academic institutions: Jane Harman said that it forces institutions to become too partisan, while Ellen Laipson explained how it would make it more difficult for experts to develop policy ahead of the curve. Jessica Mathews, however, took a more optimistic view, arguing that new media give think tanks better access to talent, and allow the best information to come to light.
Many readers, however, are skeptical of the think tank industry altogether. In response to “For think tanks, it’s either innovate or die,” eugenepatrickdevany said institutions are just as polarized as the legislators drafting policies:
Good ideas don’t get implemented because too many people are comfortable with injustice and inequality. Think tanks align with the political left or right and it is hard to find any that simply want to keep the good and eliminate the evil (to paraphrase 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
One commentator on Facebook echoed that sentiment:
The rise of the ideologically driven publicity seeking think tank has destroyed the credibility of the industry. Want a left wing view, look at Brookings. Analysis supporting the right wing, Cato, AEI […]
False balance reporting only strengthens the ideologues. Thoughtful perspectives with novel ideas do not generate easy sound bites for the cable news, but this is precisely where really interesting journalism will be found.
Spieler20 delivered the cynical view that academic institutions serve as perches for the political elite when their party is not in power:
With a few exceptions, think tanks are the definition of partisan. Where do you think all the newly-unemployed political appointees go when the executive changes hands? Off to their non-profit shelter of choice so that they can come up with ideas to pitch to get themselves another job. Think of them as “unemployment” for the cronies.
Still, there were a few people who stood in defense of the think tank industry:
In response to “Are think tanks obsolete?“, Patrick Lester argued that effective think tanks are able to influence the policymakers, not just the general public.
… If you are an effective think tank, your scholars know and are known by this small group [of legislators]. Your articles may not be widely read (in terms of sheer numbers), but they establish a reputation for knowledge and credibility. (It was the loss of credibility in the highly publicized Brookings case that drew attention to it. A think tank that loses credibility loses influence).
For think tanks that keep their reputations for credibility and knowledge intact, influence follows from there, usually through direct interaction with high-level staff via meetings, phone calls, and email. The most effective think tank scholars are regularly contacted by these policymakers, usually with very technical questions. None of that will ever get a Facebook “like” but it is influential nevertheless.
Are all think tanks effective? No. Do they regularly trump partisan leanings or other, powerful interest groups? No. But the best of them are — and remain — important players in the policymaking landscape.